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Night Watch by Timur Bekmambatov (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
20th Century Fox DVD  ISBN/ITEM#: B000FFJ81C
Date: 20 June, 2006 List Price $27.98 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Galina Tyunina, Vladimir Menshov, Dmitri Martynov

During a Jackson-esque medieval battle sequence, the first of several prologues to the movie's real action, a voiceover partially explains a complex background: among us there walk many and various supernaturally powered Others, human by birth and appearance, forced, by the gift-or-curse of being born or turned Other, to choose between the eternally battling forces of Light and Darkness. The spiritual battle for the souls of men is secretly waged by these underground soldiers - lycanthropes, vampires, witches, etcetera. When the generals (Gesser leads the Light Others, and Zavulon, the Dark) realized that their armies were equally matched, and a decisive showdown between good and evil would mean death for all, they declared a Truce, affecting all supernatural beings both good/Light and evil/Dark. This Truce established the Night Watch: Light Others and superpowered cops who patrol and punish vampires and witches who violate the Truce. (Their opposite numbers, the Day Watch, are briefly glimpsed – guys in sports cars, with designer clothing and expensive shades, who look suspiciously like a Russian parody of C.I.A. operatives.)

Our hero Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) is a Night Watch operative who experiences intermittent visions of the future; his job, tracking criminal vampires, requires him to drink blood himself, on occasion, and the vampires of Moscow uneasily accept his presence in their underground community. Anton is assigned to rescue a child from a vampire operating without a license – only to find that the child is his own long-lost illegitimate son, who may also be the key to preventing a coming apocalypse...

...and all that is in the first fifteen minutes of this fiercely rich, advanced, and intelligent dark fantasy/action movie. A lot of this material, of course, falls right in line with a certain vein of American fantasy/superhero pictures; it seems like underground gang warfare among superpowered folks is a favorite flavor among the kids these days - Blade and its sequels, Underworld, Constantine, Spawn, and the Highlander pictures come immediately to mind.

None of these movies so far has had everything it takes to really rivet my attention, on something so, well, silly, and sophomoric; for me, looking cool and acting tough just aren't enough. A first-rate fantastic film requires a convincing otherworldly landscape, to create with not just attitude but involved thought and attention to detail on the part of the creators are also requisite, whether or not that fantastic landscape is built from or onto a gritty urban backdrop drawn from realistic or natural tradition. Though I'll grudgingly except the Matrix pictures from this generalization, none of the stuff that's like this, so far, has done enough work, to really work. The filmmakers who do this material are always trapped in aesthetic adolescence, or maybe sometimes, it's condescension; in either case, they willfully forget that to hold an alert adult's attention, any movie, fantastic or otherwise, needs real depth, in character and acting, dialogue and story, intent and message.

Night Watch, however, does have all this going for it, and more. The general outline is an obvious metaphor for the Cold War, the vampire community, a commentary on the heroin trade; but, as reading Tolkien's Middle Earth as Europe in WWII becomes an ever-advancing study in clever misdirection the closer you look, so Night Watch treats its metaphoric conceits with a respect and intensity of imagination that elevates them above mere allegory. Also like Tolkien, and other first-rank Xian fantasists – as well as latter-day screen serials The Matrix and Star WarsNight Watch offers a unique, fascinating moral philosophy; this colors the entire narrative, and lingers insistently in the spiritual corner of one's own imagination, long after the movie is over.

These are only a few of the wildly positive things to say about the writing on this movie (adapted from a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko – and if you've read it, you're way ahead of me). The characters and dialogue often reminded me of Neil Gaiman's best work, though a somber, terse Gaiman, expressing unwonted maturity; so did a wonderful sense for sudden shifts in tone, and a great sense of humor, which often jabs pointedly at American methods, both cinematic and political. Also Gaiman-esque (or should that be... Gaimanic? Gaimaniac, maybe? how about, Gaimanly? no – that just won't do...) is a level of complexity that never alienates, but only creates an immediate desire to watch the picture again from the beginning - which, in fact, I did – and Night Watch is even more rewarding on reviewing, which I can hardly ever say about American superhero or fantasy movies.

You also get really good acting, fabulous design in a Jeunet/Gilliam mode, exciting experimental cinematography, and a sense for bringing imaginative lyricism to bear on the use of digital effects, that you'll kind of have to see to believe – nothing else since Jeunet's Amelie has employed digital technology to create and maintain such an exhilarating feeling of utter unpredictability. My favorite sequence in Night Watch: a bolt tears loose from a plane in flight, and camera follows the falling chunk of metal all the way down, as it tumbles through clouds, bounces through a rooftop grating into a roach-infested ventilation system, and thence rattles its way through a grating into a character's kitchen, and lands in her cup of coffee, which she frowns at in bemused puzzlement, before dumping into the sink. What narrative purpose does all this serve? Very little – but this, and similar passages throughout, reflect a spirit of giddy creativity, that places this movie firmly beyond description.

As I glance over my notes, I see that, despite the length of the foregoing, I've failed to cover most of the plot, and a good deal of my own commentary; there's just so much going on in this movie, that it's frankly impossible. Of course, this is why mainstream American critics and audiences had trouble embracing Night Watch, during its high profile arthouse theatrical release a few months ago; it's also why serious fantasy fans should rush to embrace and adore it. And there are two sequels coming? Such a prospect hasn't excited me this much, since I was twelve years old, and really believed they'd make that second Buckaroo Banzai movie.

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