starring Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin, Mariya Poroshina
screenplay by Timur Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis
directed by Timur Bekmambetov
by Walter Chaw When it's not frantically whipping up arbitrary rules in its supernatural universe like the world's most convoluted (and expensive game) of Calvin-ball, Russian sensation Timur Bekmambetov's epileptic fusion of Highlander and The Matrix, Night Watch, comes off as every bit the puerile lightshow that such a union would imply. Consider the premise: Light and dark "Others" live amongst humans, sometimes not knowing that they're not human, frozen in a centuries-old truce policed through night and day watches (and a dusk watch, too, judging by the proposed title of the third film in this planned trilogy) that ensure both sides refrain from killing one another. They're all vampires, I guess, though some are also shapeshifters (or instead are shapeshifters, who knows?) and some are those Indian fakir surgeons who used to pretend to reach into human body cavities and yank out chicken guts. It's telling that no positive review of this film is complete without a mention that there's a sequel and, with it, the rationalization that the many narrative crimes of Night Watch are explicable within the need for extended exposition in the first chapter. (See also: The Phantom Menace.) Telling, also, that the best proof presented for the quality of the film is that it's the top-grossing film in Russian history--that is, until its sequel recently eclipsed its $16M gross with a $33M haul of its own.
I wonder if it wasn't Russian whether Night Watch would be getting any kind of attention at all--but because it's the product of a national film industry that's been moribund since Eisenstein (or maybe Tarkovsky), there is attached to it a sort of patronizing, "Boy, I didn't even know they had theatres in Russia!" benefit of the doubt afforded it. You feel like you want to treat it as you'd treat your kid's Christmas pageant. And, likewise, it's fair to call Night Watch a mess bordering on unwatchable and written with the mindless conviction of a kid's first attempt at writing a comic book. It's the kind of film that's widely appealing, doing most harm by confirming the belief held by most studio moneymen that the best way to attain crossover appeal is to jettison "difficult" elements like dialogue, character development, and quiet. Consider the scene where an owl-pal (like the clockwork Bubo from Clash of the Titans) transforms into a comely Russian lass (Galina Tyunina) who doesn't remember how to use a faucet, yet has been achin' for a shower for sixty years. (A shower she doesn't take, opting for a bath instead.) She also doesn't appear to have a problem remembering anything else during the course of her human-hood, leading me to assume that a fratboy nitwit cobbled the whole thing together using the "cool" parts of his favourite flicks. Oh, and there's something to do with a "chosen one" kid that plays a lot more like Eddie Murphy disaster The Golden Child than like Star Wars, which couldn't be, I don't think, what Bekmambetov intended.
One might argue that Night Watch grapples with issues of free will and personal identity, but let's be serious: anything resembling subtlety or subtext is most likely residue from the myriad sources the film has joylessly ripped off. Not content with the usual bloat, there's also something about how the Dark Others can apply for licenses from the Light Others to harvest humans for food except something or another then happens, leading to milquetoast protagonist Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) accidentally killing a Dark Other in self-defense, resulting in a vampire broad wanting revenge. And then, in a subplot related in ways that are a total mystery to me, there's a cursed vestal virgin Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) therefore destined to bring about the end of the world in a really bad CGI vortex unless Anton and his yellow-raincoat Night Watch cohorts can find out who cursed her and get the curser to uncurse the cursed. It goes on and on like this for what seems like an eternity, scenes of people walking down a street afforded multiple jump-cuts, cacophonous Russian-metal noise, stylized subtitles that comprise the film's niftiest effects, and finally an impossible-to-follow splice of the prologue's Highlander furry costume stupidity, with at least one person wielding a light(ed)saber. A downloadable trailer compresses the entire film into a two-and-a-half minute time lapse, and I won't be the first to say that, viewed at light speed, there's no appreciable loss of clarity nor, in truth, in quality of experience. Originally published: March 3, 2006.