Starring Konstantin Khabensky, Mariya Poroshina, Vladimir Menshov, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Dmitri Martynov
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
I first saw Night Watch a year or so ago (gotta love eBay for providing cinephiles with almost unlimited access to films from all across the globe), and while I did enjoy it — a lot — it definitely lost a little something in the translation. Shortly thereafter along came Fox Searchlight to spiff it up with a new cut for American audiences that enjoyed a successful, but very limited, theatrical release. It’s now available to the masses via DVD, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Maybe it was because of the “enhanced” subtitles (more on those later) or just my Russian heritage seeping through, but I can’t remember when I’ve been more engrossed by a film, especially one that I’ve seen before. And I didn’t just sit through it once prior to writing this review; no, Fox’s new version of Night Watch ran a total of three times in my DVD player so that I could soak up every detail of the film itself and both commentaries.
While I wouldn’t recommend that everyone follow suit, I do feel that at least two viewings of the film are in order for one to fully appreciate the imagery it contains and grasp the concepts it lays out. The person I watched it with claims it’s still somewhat convoluted and confusing even after Fox’s tinkering, but it all fell into place for me with just a little prodding from director Bekmambetov and novelist Lukyanenko.
Night Watch opens with a voiceover explaining the back story. Centuries ago the forces of Light and Dark battled for supremacy over the world. Sensing that both sides would keep fighting until there was no one left, Geser (head of the Light army) forged a Truce with the leader of the Dark side, Zavulon. Each side would monitor the other’s activities. But the soldiers aren’t exactly human; they are known as Others and consist of witches, seers, vampires, magicians, and other sundry mystical type beings. Each Other, upon realizing his or her powers, chooses sides. Those who serve the Light are called the Night Watch since basically that’s what they do: watch over the Dark ones to make sure they don’t cause too much trouble among the humans. Conversely, the Dark Others are known as the Day Watch, and their purpose is to make sure the Lights don’t intervene to make life easier for the lowly mortals. Everything has been running smoothly for hundreds of years, but as often happens in epic struggles such as this, the balance is about to shift. An ancient prophecy is poised to be fulfilled wherein a man, a Great Other, emerges and opts to align himself with Darkness. As Geser says a bit later, “It is easier to kill the Light within oneself, than to scatter the Darkness around.”
Whew! We learn all that in just the first five minutes. And a very bloody five minutes it is!
Next thing we know it’s August 19, 1992, and we’re being introduced to Anton, a young man who’s lost his wife to another man and is about to utilize the services of a witch to win her back and destroy the life of the baby she’s carrying, which he’s told is not his. The witch begins her spell, and we’re treated to some stunning visuals that are just a hint of what’s to come, but before she can complete the deed, two things happen: Anton has a change of heart and several strangers break into the apartment to arrest the old woman. It is then revealed to Anton that he is an Other, and he must choose between the Light and the Dark.
Whew! There went another five minutes. Suddenly we’re placed in current day Moscow, where Anton, now a full-fledged member of the Night Watch, is drinking blood provided by his vampire neighbor’s father (who conveniently happens to be a butcher) so that he will be better able to track down some renegade vamps who broke the Truce by attempting to lure a young boy to their lair. It’s in these early scenes of vampiress Larisa calling to Yegor (Martynov) where the special subtitles first come into play. He’s swimming in a community pool when a voice calls out, “Come.” His nose begins bleeding, and the red subtitles morph into blood swirling around the boy and dripping into the pool. It’s quite ingenious. Other techniques are used later in the film that are just as effective. It’s a great example of going the extra mile to enhance the audience’s experience.
It’s at this point that Night Watch throws out its “B” story. Anton has spotted Yegor on the subway, but they’re not the only ones having a bad day. A young woman appears to Anton as having a large vortex of misfortune spinning above her. And it’s not just any old vortex either. It’s the big “V,” the one that started the whole Light vs. Dark saga so many years ago. The woman, Svetlana (Poroshina), has been cursed, and the Light Others must learn who it was that cursed her in order to close the vortex and keep the warring factions of Light and Dark under the control of the Truce. At first it isn’t clear what, if anything, this has to do with Anton and Yegor, but rest assured it will all come together at the end.
Meanwhile, Yegor has given Anton the slip, but he’s able to locate the youngster since he can hear Larisa’s call as well. The next visual treat is our first glimpse of the Gloom, a realm between Light and Dark. Anton and the Dark vampire Andrei, Larisa’s lover and maker, engage in a scary, bloody fight with Andrei shuttling back and forth between the Gloom and our world. Anton can only see him in the broken shards of a mirror. Bekmambetov outdoes himself with this scene. The choreography and editing are both stellar. He does it again later for Olga’s transformation and Anton’s “feeding” of the Gloom, two of my favorite scenes. High marks to cinematographer Sergei Trofimov and editor Dmitri Kiselev for their nearly flawless work.
I confess I’m a big fan of stories in which humans are merely pawns in a struggle between two greater powers. Movies like The Prophecy do a great job exploring the religious side of things whereas Night Watch eschews any of those trappings and takes a more realistic approach. Bekmambetov stresses again and again in his commentary that although the film is certainly a fantasy, it is rooted in realism. He uses video game footage, familiar locations, actual celebrities, and even product placement as tools to remind the audience that his film is meant to be taken seriously, as if it were actually happening in Moscow today. Despite his obvious American influences, he freely admits Night Watch‘s international popularity was a surprise given that it was made specifically for Russian audiences with references that only they could understand. He does, however, appreciate his audience’s intelligence and rewards us with a new mythos full of rich characters we can empathize with and relate to. Some changes were made on the DVD that the translator suggested in order to appeal to American audiences (see if you can spot a popular TV series that was swapped out with its Russian counterpart in one rather humorous scene), and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it was obviously not an effort to “dumb down” the film in any way, but rather an attempt to make it more accessible to a wider audience. On the other hand, I prefer to see films in their natural, unadulterated state — confusing dialogue, obscure references, and all. But at the end of the day, whatever changes Fox made were minor and probably did add to my overall enjoyment of the film since things were explained in a way that related to my own culture and experience.
One of the biggest pleasures of Night Watch is the acting. From the first time I saw Anton, I knew he was someone I would care about. There’s just something about Khabensky’s face and demeanor that draws you in and makes you want to follow his story. Same with Poroshina and Martynov. They are believable even if the situations they find themselves in are not. Anna Dubrovskaya as Larisa also caught my eye; she had total command over her small but pivotal role. All the major players are back for Part 2, Day Watch, and I can’t wait to see how much these already fine actors have honed their craft over the intervening years.
So, what about that mythos mentioned earlier? Are the Others really worthy of all the acclaim and huge box office success they received in their homeland? Absolutely yes. This review has just scratched the surface of the layers of genres and styles contained in Night Watch. It is beautiful both to the eye and to the heart. The level of craftsmanship exhibited by Bekmambetov and his crew is up there with the best of the best. He humbly states that he himself doesn’t fully understand the world of Light and Dark that he has filmed. He is not the creator, but a researcher who will learn and show more in the next installments. If that’s true, then who did create this magical tale that was touted as Russia’s answer to Lord of the Rings? That would be Sergei Lukyanenko, author of the series of books on which the Watch films are based. In one of the most unusual extras I’ve seen, Lukyanenko provides a text only commentary for the film. It was extremely informative, and surprisingly, his personality did manage to show through the subtitles. According to Lukyanenko, Anton of the books is more romantic and idealistic, and the overall tone of the novels is less judgmental, not so much good vs. evil as just a constant trade-off; but he is nothing if not accommodating and complimentary when discussing the changes that were made from his source material. He also elaborates a bit on a third organization, the Inquisition, which is comprised of the most powerful Light and Dark Others. Those who watch the Watchers, if you will. That’s a concept I definitely look forward to learning more about in Day Watch.
My only complaint about Fox’s DVD release is that it’s a two-sided disc. It’s not their fault, but for whatever reason, I’m totally inept when it comes to figuring out which side is which, so that automatically knocks a few points off the score. But it’s a minor flaw, and everything else about Night Watch more than makes up for it. Bekmambetov’s commentary sheds a lot of light on his creative process and provides some interesting factoids about the project. Remember that August 19th date from the film’s opening? As fate would have it, August 19th is also the date on which Bekmambetov signed with Fox to distribute Night Watch two years after the fact! He also explains the genesis for the buzzing sound that occurs around the Gloom. That’s exactly the kind of stuff I listen to commentaries to learn. There’s an alternate ending that is terrific but goes on for far too long and totally changes the mood it took the length of the film to build. Cutting it out but leaving it as an extra was a wise move by the filmmakers. The rest of the package includes a sneak peek at Day Watch and a few other trailers.
I could rattle on for a few more paragraphs about how great Night Watch is, but just like the Others, it’s up to the viewer to decide for himself which path to follow. I haven’t heard too many people say they thought Night Watch was just “so-so.” It seems to be a case of love it or hate it, and I am firmly in the camp of the former. Come . . . join me and the Others in the Gloom as we wait patiently for Day Watch‘s arrival. Anton and his friends will look out for us.
Widescreen English version
Extended ending (“The Roof”) with optional commentary by director Timur Bekmambetov (option to view in English or Russian audio)
Sneak peek at upcoming Night Watch sequels
Widescreen Russian version
Audio commentary by director Timur Bekmambetov (subtitled in English, Spanish, French)
Text commentary by novelist Sergei Lukyanenko (subtitled in English, Spanish, French)
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