2004Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Galina Tyunina
arreling out of the long dark Muscovite night with a full head of steam and style to burn, Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch crashes into American theaters on a minor wave of hype and a major wave of brilliant promise. As entertainingly inventive as it is reductively derivative, this huge, rollicking genre mash-up steals and cribs recklessly and indiscriminately from countless kindred films, refashioning them into something wholly familiar yet skewed enough to be invigoratingly original. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s confusing, it’s hopelessly adolescent, and, most importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Over a prelude of two armies confronting one another on a medieval battlefield, a stentorian narrator declaims that there are Others among us—they’ve always been there, lurking in the shadows, mostly indistinguishable from humans, only revealing their true nature when unleashing their multifarious powers in battle. Divided into opposing Light and Dark factions, they’d warred for millennia before declaring a truce, uneasily coexisting and policing each other to keep the world from being torn asunder by their feuding. The moral makeup and intentions of each group remains vague and menacing, “Light” and “Dark” not necessarily polarizing into a straight-up Good v. Evil affair. Both groups, though, prey on humanity, the Dark side for sustenance (since most seem to be vampires) and the Light (mostly shape-shifters and sorcerer types, with a smattering of vampires) for leverage in trying to gain the moral upper hand over the Dark.
In present-day Moscow, an accretion of infractions and violations of this tenuous treaty threatens to escalate into full-scale war, the détente collapsing into an imminent apocalypse. Into this volatile situation steps our unlikely hero: Anton Gorodetsky (an unlikeliness stemming mostly from the fact that Konstantin Khabensky looks like a young Slavic version of Rodney Dangerfield), lately just a schlubby run of the mill human, until discovering his inner Otherness and becoming a semi-reluctant solider for the Light faction. After seriously disrupting the truce between the factions, he finds himself the focus of intersecting crises involving a cursed virgin who may be opening up a vortex that will bring down Armageddon from the heavens, and a mysterious young boy being lured by a lonely vampire to a catastrophic fate. The eventual convergence of these twin storylines leads Anton into an elaborate trap set by Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky), the leader of the Dark faction. The inevitable showdown for the soul of this possibly messianic boy (who is also, of course, Anton’s son) brings Night Watch to an entirely predictable, if agreeably pessimistic, conclusion, with enough plot threads left dangling to draw viewers into the subsequent films of a planned trilogy.
If all of this—the vampires, the shape-shifters, the shadow world lurking behind everyday reality, the eternal wars, the apocalyptic virgins, the Christ-child savior—sounds like high-level adolescent hokum, well, that’s because that’s precisely what Night Watch is. It wears its puerile exuberance proudly, though, careening breathlessly from one idea to the next without bothering to bring us up to speed or even ever explain what’s really going on. There’s just no time, there’s too much to get up on the screen to really worry about form or even coherence. But Bekmambetov’s “everything and the kitchen sink” directorial approach—basically throwing whatever comes to hand up at the screen and seeing what sticks—complements the frenzied script perfectly. You know, when a teenager tries recounting something—a movie, a book—that really excites him, and basically ends up trying to tell you everything all at once, in a mad rush, everything jumbled up and strung to together with “…and then…and then…and then…?” That’s what watching Night Watch is like. It’s entertaining, but thoroughly exasperating.
What saves the film from dissolving into a wreck of modern gothic gobbledygook is the self-assured seriousness with which it constructs and comprehends its fantasy world. Hewing closely to the once-innocent mythopoetical template of the original installments of the Star Wars and Matrix series, Night Watch births a thoroughly outlandish, but always believable, world that is inviting and seductive, even for all its blood-soaked ugliness. And, thankfully, this seriousness never succumbs to the smug self-importance that undermines the exceedingly tedious subsequent chapters in the aforementioned series. I’ll take frenetic confusion over momentum killing exposition any day of the week.
And yet, Night Watch is nothing but exposition. Rather than a self-contained film conceived and filmed as a stand-alone (again, The Matrix and the original Star Wars, both supremely enjoyable and artistically successful films, were released, though not necessarily planned, as one-offs), it is most definitively an opening, establishing chapter in a much larger narrative arc. You get the same feeling while watching it race towards its conclusion as you get when you watch a television episode and you know there’s no way they can possibly wrap up everything in the time remaining. It’s hard to fault the film for this; it’s just hard to assess it qualitatively as it stands, without knowing the direction it intends to take. But I’m not too worried about what’s to come. There’s an agreeable strain of dark humor coursing underneath Night Watch that serves to leaven its tendency towards self-importance. If this continues to run through the remaining films, and Bekmambetov maintains his reckless stylistic brio throughout, we may indeed be left with a truly laudable modern mythology, one that finally fulfills all the promise and potential of its gestation and birth in this first installment.
By: Jake Meaney
Published on: 2006-03-09