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NIGHT WATCH

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Konstantin Khabensky, Galina Tyunina, Dmitry Martynov, Viktor Verzhbitsky
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Audio: Russian 5.1, English 5.1, Spanish or French Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: 20th Century-Fox
Features: Director commentary, author commentary, extended ending, sneak peeks
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: June 20, 2006

"It's easier for a man to destroy the Light inside himself than to defeat the darkness all around him."

Film **

When we think of Russian cinema, we generally think of overly-long, deadly dull movies with too much talking and too little action.  We certainly don't envision gory horror films about vampires, witches, and shape-shifters.  And yet, Nochnoy Dozor (Night Watch, 2004) is just such a film, the first in a proposed trilogy of films about the apocalyptic conflict between the forces of Good and Evil.  If someone had taken The Prophecy films (with Christopher Walken), mixed them with the Underworld films, and thrown in some Matrix or Omen for extra measure, the end result would surely look very similar to Night Watch.  That a Russian film would be the cinematic embodiment of such a fantasy concoction is bizarre, perhaps, but American pop culture has an uncanny way of infiltrating even the staunchest of world cinema.  However, judging by Night Watch, Hollywood has little to fear so far from the Russian film industry.

Night Watch earns zero points for originality but at least it has style.  Now stop me if you've heard this before - the world is home not only to ordinary people but also to a secretive group of super-humans with unique or mutant abilities.  Over the centuries, these extra-ordinary humans, the Others, have marshaled their forces into Good and Evil counterparts.  Legend prophesizes the birth one day of a Chosen One who will tip the balance in this ancient stand-off between Good and Evil.  This Chosen One, a young child, will have incredible powers, the extent of which even he may not be fully cognizant, and Good and Evil will both vie for his allegiance.

Anton is one of the Night Watch, a select few among the Good who keep vigil over the activities of the Evil forces.  Anton is not particularly bright and may even be a little incompetent.  But he has the clairvoyant power of future sight, which he employs to help him track down the Chosen One.  Anton also harbors private motivations which may cloud his judgment, and his friendship with certain members of the Dark mark him as a somewhat ambivalent wild card in this epic struggle.  Is Anton good or evil?  If he should locate the Chosen One, to which side of the conflict will he ultimately convert the young boy?

Anton's mission is complicated further by the appearance of an ominous "vortex of damnation."  This harbinger of great destruction is somehow linked to a cursed woman that Anton encounters by chance on the Moscow subway.  Her ultimate role in the story remains obscure (perhaps the planned sequels to Night Watch will elucidate matters), but this woman represents a more dangerous and immediate threat to mankind which must be resolved quickly.  To save the world, the Night Watch must either cure her...or kill her.  The film splits its time between these two sub-plots, although their connection is tenuous at best.  Sadly, neither storyline concludes satisfactorily.  The vortex storyline ends rather half-heartedly, while the Chosen One storyline ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger.

While generally entertaining, Night Watch's biggest weakness is that it feels entirely derivative.  Hollywood has addressed Night Watch's themes ad nauseam and frequently better so.  Night Watch was a big hit in Russia, and sure, there are vampires and were-creatures and witches and mano e mano duels aplenty, but there is little semblance of a compelling or unifying narrative arc to hook the audience.  Rapid-fire editing serves to draw audiences' attention away from deficiencies in the film's internal logic or even the general plot.  While the film is visually interesting, its budgetary limitations cannot quite match its ambitious scope.  One battle scene even has our wimpy hero waving about a flimsy fluorescent tube bulb to fend off an all-powerful Dark Master armed with a sword.  Right.  And did you know that a flashlight's glare or the reflected headlight from a car can kill vampires (unless the vampires are walking right through traffic, in which case it apparently doesn't)?  Or that invisible vampires show up in mirrors?  Oh please.

Also, whoever edited Night Watch was on a serious caffeine high or perhaps endured too many music videos.  The editing is frantic with cuts so rapid and hyper-kinetic that following the convoluted storyline is often difficult.  The shaky exposition becomes especially problematic whenever characters drift in and out of the Gloom, a parallel universe stylized after ring-bearing scenes from The Lord of the Rings.

In short, Night Watch is a wannabe-product with a vapid storyline.  Its eye candy appeal is undeniably first-rate, and it makes for an entertaining enough popcorn movie, but why watch an inferior imitation of Underworld or The Matrix when we can just watch those films instead?

Video ****

Here is where Night Watch excels.  The film looks quite spectacular in this transfer.  Colors really stand out (especially red), and the images are sharp with a pristine appearance.  Computer graphics abound, and the film admittedly shows a lot of visual flair.  But then again, so did Battlefield Earth.

Audio ***

The original Russian audio track is available only if viewers remember to flip the disc over to Side B.  It's not quite reference quality, but it should be pleasingly loud and bombastic enough for action film fans.  In lieu of that, English, French, or Spanish audios are offered on Side A.  The dubs are frankly cringe-inducing, as these things tend to be, and really drag the film down.  Avoid them unless you are simply dying to hear what French or Spanish sounds like when spoken with faux Russian accents.

English and Spanish subtitles are available on both sides.  In addition, there are also French subtitles for the Russian-language version of the film.  I strongly recommend watching the Russian-language version.  Its highly inventive subtitles work extremely well within the story context and greatly enhance the occasionally eerie ambiance of the film.

Features *

This is a very confusing flipper disc.  Contents are rather haphazardly arranged, and tracking down any specific feature generally devolves into a game of hide-and-seek.  Catch the dreaded dubbed versions on Side A, or see the Russian-language version (with burnt-in English subtitles) on Side B.  The flipped side also contains a subtitled commentary by novelist Sergei Lukyanenko in which the novelist compares his novel with the film adaptation.  He is not afraid to criticize the film at various junctions, either.  However, if you turn on this subtitled commentary, be well rested or you will probably develop eventual eye strain from trying to simultaneously watch the film, read the English translations, and follow Lukyanenko's non-stop comments.  Director Timur Bekmambetov also offers his own audio commentary (in English).  This commentary track is only available on Side B but is very soporific.  At least Bekmambetov does point out numerous Russian cultural references within this film to help foreign audiences better identify with the film's social context.

For anyone who cannot get enough of Night Watch, flip back to Side A for a six-minute extended ending included as a bonus feature.  This alternate (but decidedly inferior) ending is offered with an English or Russian audio, or also with a rather dull commentary from director Timur Bekmambetov.  I think he forgot to talk about the film while re-watching it.

Lastly, there are a few sneak peeks.  Among them are a glance at Day Watch, the first sequel to Night Watch.  Be sure to check out Night Watch's closing credits for a teasing flash of this sequel, too.  The remaining trailers are for the anime epic Broken Saints, the horror remake The Hills Have Eyes, the TV show Thief, and a teaser for an unidentified film (but clearly the remake of The Omen).

Summary:

Night Watch plays like a lame Sci-Fi Channel made-for-cable movie.  It's all style, zero substance, zero originality.  Night Watch is passable eye candy but little more (for now).  We'll just have to wait for the release of the remaining chapters in this film trilogy.

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