Night Watch (2004) / Fantasy-Horror
aka Nochnoi Dozor

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, disturbing images, and language
Running Time: 114 min. (some versions are cut to 88 minutes)

Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin, Mariya Poroshina, Galina Tyunina, Gosha (Yuri) Kutsenko, Dmitry Martynov, Aleksei Chadov, Zhanna Friske, Ilya Lagutenko, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Rimma Markova
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay: Timur Bekmambetov, Laeta Kalogridis (based on the first part of the novel, "Nochnoi Dozor" by Sergei Lukyanenko)
Review published March 20, 2006

Based on the first part (of three) of the popular Russian novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, the first book in the "Watch" tetralogy series, Night Watch is Kazakhstan-born filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov's breakthrough film.  It's a special effects extravaganza, featuring a bizarre but oddly appealing storyline that would earn it an international release in all parts of the world, and so popular in its native country of Russia, it would become the top-grossing Russian movie all time (more popular in Russia than Lord of the Rings), although that record was short-lived.  That doesn't necessarily mean it is a great film, but with visual effects and a frenetic editing style that rivals big budget Hollywood releases, Night Watch proves to be an achievement for Russian moviemaking, setting the stage for releases of international merit for the foreseeable future.

Although a fantasy, most of the events of Night Watch take place in the modern-day, with a group of gifted persons, known as the Others, living freely among the humans.  These Others have been in a struggle between the forces of Light and those of the Dark, who are currently in a truce to see which faction will prevail for dominion of the Earth.  The Others are split into two distinct groups: Night Watch represents the Others on the side of Light, who monitor the dealings of the Dark, while Day Watch are Dark vampire creatures that keep tabs on the Light side. 

In Moscow, Anton Gorodetsky (Khabensky) lived a normal life for many years before being identified as an Other, which happens when he visits a medium and is exposed for being able to see two agents from the Night Watch.  He is immediately recruited, and has been on task for over twelve years, but his latest assignment proves to be his most important yet.  It seems there is a boy that is roaming the streets that possesses a great power, putting the balance between Light and Dark in his hands.  Both sides are out to find and lure him in to their camp to tip this balance in their favor, which would give them dominion over the world for a long time to come.

Although many fanboys will no doubt rabidly eat up every aspect of this very ambitious Russian production, as a film, it's a bit of a mess really.  Many aspects of the original novel were truncated, excised, or just plain skipped over in order to beef up the action and special effects quotient, leaving things like plot development and refined characterizations on the proverbial cutting room floor.  The motivations of the characters are often confusing, while subplots abound that make very little sense in terms of their importance to the overall film, perhaps only introduced to spotlight developments that will occur in the inevitable sequels.

The explanation of Night Watch's popularity can be summed up fairly easily: it has an air of coolness to it that wins over geeky audiences, even if they don't quite understand it all.  Bekmambetov's visual directorial style makes for some memorable imagery, some beautiful and some quite repugnant, but always done with great flair.  Although it is a horror film of sorts, it isn't particularly scary, going for a campy vampire vibe that should thrill fans of hip modern-day vampire action, like "Buffy", Blade and Underworld.  It has its own depth in its mythos that should produce multimedia spin-offs once the cycle of films run their course.

Night Watch isn't for everyone.  In fact, if you aren't a genre fanatic, i.e., a sci-fi, horror, fantasy, or action junkie, this film will probably prove a futile watch.  For those that enjoy these kinds of movies, it may not make total sense, but it does dish up enough of the goods you expect to justify at least one viewing, playing like a quasi-complex popcorn movie with a goofy personality to temper the darkness in the material.  Only time will tell whether the next movies perform better in terms of explaining how the Night Watch universe works, so the final verdict may not be in on this intriguing but beguiling film just yet.  Thankfully, given the popularity and amount of fans clamoring for the sequels, they won't be long in coming.

-- Followed by Day Watch (aka Night Watch 2)

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo