Night Watch (Russia, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are many words that could be used to describe Night Watch, but "conventional" and "dull" are not among them. The film has the twin virtues of being bold and dizzying, but it features a cramped and chaotic narrative that concludes with a climax that doesn't justify the build-up. The greatest disappointment with Night Watch is that, at a critical juncture, it fizzles. Instead of the epic resolution we are led to expect, the production delivers an expedient, unsatisfying finale - one that promises more to come in the second volume of a planned cinematic trilogy.

When it was released in Russia two years ago, Night Watch became an event movie - the one film everyone had to see. (Someone could write a thesis about the movie's fanatical appeal in its home country. Is it because it's a rare Russian-made effort that can stand toe-to-toe with Hollywood blockbusters? Or is it because a gloomy, apocalyptic scenario appeals to Russians?) The second segment of the three-part arc, Day Watch, is currently in release and is playing to packed houses. Fox, sensing the potential for a cult U.S. following, not only bought the rights for the first two pictures, but agreed to finance the third one. Dusk Watch will have a larger budget than its predecessors and will be filmed in English. Now, with the release of Night Watch in North American theaters, Fox will see if their gamble pays off.

Night Watch straddles the fantasy and horror genres. It tells a story of good and evil, and how the material plane exists in a state of near perfect balance. A race of "Others" roam amongst the humans, mostly unseen, preserving this balance. There are the good "Others" - those with the powers of shapeshifters and seers - who form the "Night Watch." Then there are the evil "Others" - those with the powers of vampires, witches, and warlocks - who form the "Day Watch." Each side watches the other, in a state of perpetual hostility, yet maintaining the equilibrium established in a truce. But the time has come for the arrival of a Chosen One whose decision whether to follow the path of good or evil will tilt the balance to one side or another. Night Watch is the story of Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), a member of the Night Watch, and his efforts to keep evil in check while protecting the boy (Dmitry Martynov) whose decision will shape the path of things to come.

Stylistically, Night Watch is reminiscent of an edgier, less polished Underworld. It transpires in dark, gothic places that would feel as much at home in black-and-white as in color. For the most part, the characters are dirty and disheveled. The way the world looks through director Timur Bekmambetov's lens, one wonders if things haven't already slid to the evil side and no one has noticed that the balance has been lost.

There's an episodic quality to the way the film progresses, imparting the sense that we're watching several stories bundled loosely together. Unresolved threads abound at the finishing line, but that's to be expected of a movie that only tells a third of the story. Night Watch ends in as good a place as any, but I left the theater unsatisfied. The payoff is uninspired, with the final fifteen minutes using short cuts to wrap up narrative elements. It's rushed and chaotic, and emphasizes the restrictions of working on a low budget. (The CGI is uneven.)

The actors, none of whom stand out, are well-matched to the film's look. They are grubby and uncharismatic, and this fits the material. It makes character identification difficult, but one could argue that Night Watch is primarily about developing its mythology. In the end, it's the director's style and some of his flourishes (follow the path of a loose bolt as it comes off an airplane and ends up in a woman's cup of coffee) that make Night Watch interesting. The good versus evil foundation is not yet well enough realized to determine whether we're going to see anything new, or whether the trilogy will re-hash literary and cinematic staples.

I would be remiss not to mention some associations with Star Wars. Although George Lucas' saga was not the first to tinker with the idea of balance in a cosmic force, it's a touchstone for a generation, and some of its ideas are replicated here, although in different circumstances. There's even an interesting father/son connection that the sequels will presumably delve into in greater detail. In addition to Star Wars, other movies that leap to mind while watching Night Watch may include Blade Runner, The Matrix, and even The City of Lost Children. All share stylistic or thematic similarities.

As a stand-alone film, Night Watch has enough problems for me to straddle the fence on a recommendation. It may be that Night Watch will work better once the other two chapters are available but, for the moment, I have only this segment to judge. The film will find favor with a small, core audience, but it has little (if any) mainstream appeal. It's an interesting failure that leaves me intrigued, but not impatient, to see what comes next.

Night Watch (Russia, 2004)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2006-02-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Russian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1