Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears, But a Centuries-Old War Between Supernatural Powers? No Problem
To borrow the syntax of the average blockbuster movie trailer: In a time when Matrix clones run amok in the multiplexes—see Underworld: Evolution, BloodRayne, and the upcoming Ultraviolet and V for Vendetta—it’s good to have Night Watch, a brooding bit of Russian genre fluff that takes current sci-fi/action conventions and runs with them in a direction that is exotic, different, and very, very trippy. Based on the wildly popular series of novels by author Sergei Lukyanenko, Night Watch—the first part of a trilogy—takes that old standby of good vs. evil and plays it out between factions of sorcerers, shape shifters, technomages, and creatures of the night in the dank, dreary underbelly of Moscow.
The prologue, re-recorded with English narration in a voice laden with a thick Russian accent, sets up the story in ominous tones full of portent with a capital “P.” Among normal humans live the Others, seemingly immortal humans possessing supernatural powers, divided up into the forces of light and the forces of dark. Centuries ago, the Others enacted a truce designed to put an end to a devastating battle that threatened to go on forever. Each side established a group of peacekeepers to watch over the other.
Zip ahead to Moscow, 1992, where the dark Others roam the night as vampires and other nightmares, their atrocities kept in check by the agents of the Night Watch. Into the middle of this wanders Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), a young bloke who is unwittingly used as live bait in a Night Watch sting when he hires a witch to place a spell on the wife who dumped him for another guy (and you thought divorce court was rough). In the process Anton discovers he can see the future.
Flash forward 12 more years. Anton has become a Night Watch agent with an unexplained case of vampirism. He and his cohorts are given two seemingly unrelated missions: investigate and protect a boy named Yegor (Dmitry Martynov), who might be the “Great Other” prophesied to tip the scales in favor of the dark side; and to uncover and cap the source of a curse that has created a “funnel of damnation” that threatens to level Moscow. Actually, they may be genuinely unrelated—the plot gets a little vague now and then.
If it all sounds silly, convoluted, and confusing, that’s because it is silly, convoluted, and confusing. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun and not unlike something Stephen King, the Wachowski Brothers, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet might have cooked up during an all-night brainstorming session while drinking tainted vodka and jamming to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer with the volume cranked to 11.
While the storytelling may be slack and occasionally infuriating, the real joy of watching Night Watch lies in the anything-goes details and what-the-fuck? moments it uses to define its surreal shadow world. The good guys cruise around town in a rocket-propelled utility van. Yegor is stalked by a supernatural scissors-wielding killer referred to as “the Hairdresser.” The head villain turns his spinal column into a sword. And the term “funnel of damnation” is used to refer to something other than a Norwegian death-metal band. Sure, it’s mind and eye candy lacking in allegorical depth, but it is at least of the Godiva chocolate variety.
Fox Searchlight, the movie’s U.S. distributor, has opted to subtitle the majority of the movie rather than use usually atrocious voice dubbing, and in one of Night Watch’s most intriguing conceits—no doubt designed to hold the attention of viewers who balk at having to read a movie—the subtitles become part of the spectacle, animated to match the context of the scene, similar to what Tony Scott did in Man on Fire, only better utilized as words pulsate, change color, and dissolve as needed. There’s also some very good special effects and CGI work cobbled from a paltry $3.5 million budget, suggesting that much of the cash sunk into more expensive, less impressive American flicks isn’t winding up on the screen.
The movie concludes open-ended on a down note, à la The Fellowship of the Ring. One sequel, Day Watch, has already been released in Russia, and the conclusion of this ambitious trilogy is currently under production, with Fox chipping a few extra million dollars. It’s quite likely Night Watch will earn its share of fans chomping at the bit to see them in the West.