"If anyone hears you say that you
liked Batman and Robin better
than Batman Begins..."
If youre anything like us you have a big map of the world on the wall and you cross off countries as they make a big budget movie with Matrix (1999) style special effects and editing. America, Japan, and Hong Kong were crossed off immediately. England, Korea, Thailand, and India took a little longer. Now you can cross off those eleven time zones of blatant government corruption and creeping dictatorship we like to call Russia. Here's Night Watch (2004), coming soon to a theater near you.
Night Watch was a huge hit in Russia, out grossing even Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) in that country. Its a supernatural action/thriller, remarkably similar in look and tone to Hellboy (2004), about a group of government sanctioned occult investigators. The group has its origins in a battle between the forces of light and dark that took place hundreds of years ago. When it became obvious the two sides were too evenly matched for either side to win, the opposing generals called a truce. Each side formed a group to watch over the other and all occult activity had to be agreed upon in advance. So the Night Watch keeps track of vampires and such, while the Day Watch keeps track of whatever the opposite of a vampire is. (Let's just say the movie isnt very clear on that point.) In the modern day the Night Watch operates under the cover of being part of Moscows electric utility repair crew. All of the members of the Night Watch have one horrible personality dysfunction or another -- which, when you think about it, is probably also true for those working as Russian electricians.
Hey, it's Creep-Me-Out Elmo!
Twelve years ago Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) went to a witch to win back the love of his wife, who had left him for another man. The witch cast a love spell but also convinced Anton to agree to another spell that would kill the other mans unborn baby. Before this mystical abortion could be completed the Night Watch broke in and stopped the witch, and Anton was inducted into the group because he could see through the Night Watchs disguises. One of the particular quirks of the translation we saw is that Anton is called "The Other," but "Other" also seems to be a generic term for anyone who knows about the existence of the paranormal. We'll be interested to see how the official translation turns out.
The film returns to the present day, when Anton has become a reluctant all-purpose investigator for the Night Watch. Hes called and told that a twelve year-old boy has entered a kind of trance that will lure him into the clutches of two vampires. As vampires are only allowed to feed on an approved schedule, Anton follows the boy and confronts the vampires. Curiously, these vampires can only be seen in reflections. We're not sure if thats a Russian vampire thing, or a result of Antons special perception, or just a revisionist take unique to this movie. Anton is able to kill one of the vampires but the other, a woman, escapes. A grievously wounded Anton is taken back to the headquarters and the head of the Night Watch performs psychic surgery on him, while summarizing the origin of the Night Watch again in case we were out getting popcorn during the prologue.
And you thought American
HMOs were bad.
From this point on the movie splits into two plots that have nothing to do with each other. The first plot has to do the kid. The remaining vampire is still after him and the Day Watch has designs on him for reasons that have to do with an ancient prophecy. The other plot has to do with a woman who has been cursed and turned into a powerful funnel of bad luck. The Night Watch has determined that she will cause an airliner to crash, so they have to find out who cursed her in order to send the hex back to whomever created it.
It's obvious that the producers threw a lot of money at Night Watch. It's slick looking, and director Timur Bekmambetov constructs a few really entertaining sequences, such as when the camera follows a metal bolt's fall off the airliner and down the ventilation system of an apartment building. But the script, oh the script! Rarely did we have any idea of what was going on in Night Watch. Some of it was probably the bad subtitles ("Funnel"? We think they meant vortex, but we got the idea). Most of our confusion, however, came about simply because things weren't explained. The bifurcated nature of the script made it difficult to figure out how characters and scenes related to each other. Towards the end our main characters are literally running from plot to plot trying resolve them both. They don't succeed; the child subplot ends with a depressing cliffhanger (Night Watch is reportedly the first part of a trilogy), and the hexed-woman subplot concludes with a ludicrous twist that left us shaking our heads. We're at a complete loss to explain why in some early scenes Anton appears to be a vampire, or why his partner is a stuffed owl who turns into a woman. From a certain perspective it might be refreshing that the film doesn't give up too many of its mysteries right away (which makes repeat viewings rewarding), but the picture runs the risk of alienating viewers by losing them in an overly-complex supernatural landscape. There's also a certain ugliness that runs through this movie, with Moscow portrayed as dilapidated and roach-ridden. This probably reflects the Russian mind-set, but it's a little off-putting in a fantasy like this.
Next time he should
ask for a Bud Light.
Granted, we've seen plenty of supernatural thrillers from Hong Kong that make even less sense than Night Watch, and enjoyed them. But those thrillers go overboard on the action, matching the loopy plots with cool fights. There isn't much action in Night Watch. The climatic fight is between a guy we've seen before only who pulls his own spine out to use as a sword (okay, we admit, that's pretty cool) and Anton, who wields a florescent light bulb (not so cool). The live action is inter-cut with shots of the action as a video game (lame). If Night Watch could have matched its visual style with either neat fights or an interesting script we would be more enthusiastic about it, but the only thing that makes it stand out now is some really nice cinematography and the fact that's it's Russian.