Friday, November 10, 2006

Film Review--Night Watch (2004)

Hundreds of years ago, a great war was waged between the forces of light and dark that would have signaled the end of life on Earth had the leaders of the two sides not agreed on a truce. Two forces now patrol modern day Moscow, the light at night (called Night Watch) and the dark at day (called Day Watch), to ensure that there is no violence from either side and that the truce is not broken. These “Others” as they are known; vampires, shapeshifters, witches, seers, on either side, sneer and shake their fists at the other with no power to act. This otherworldly Cold War, however, heats up when events that signal the coming apocalypse arise (which will rekindle the war) and the prophecy of an Other who will choose sides and determine the outcome of the coming war between the sides. The prophecy states that the young one will choose the light, but “some wise men say he will choose the side of dark, for it’s easier to destroy the light in yourself than to fight off the darkness surrounding you.”

In this statement lies the kind of ambiguous morality that makes Tinbur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch work. The story is from the same Joseph Campbell template that brought Star Wars, The Matrix, etc. which, while I don’t exactly agree with what Campbell puts forth, makes an easy to understand, mythologically-based story in a modern setting. The sound storytelling is added to the moral ambiguity and the American look is mixed with a solid Russian esthetic. Combined, these elements make an outstandingly watchable, sometimes deeply thought out, action/fantasy entry that was one of the first major market films out of Russia since the Soviet fall.

Given that Night Watch is the first part of a trilogy, there are some severe holes (some, with references in WWII, promise to be very tasty), in the plot that will, presumably, be filled in the following pictures but, all that forgiven, there is a very good style throughout. The action scenes, reminiscent of the Wachowski brothers (negative reviews often pointed to this as if the film was an outright ripoff of The Matrix without mentioning that the Wachowski brothers even more blatantly ripped off Hong Kong action films…whatever), flow very well through the horror elements and story structure that make its 114 minutes feel like half that. An interesting tidbit of style is the subtitling. Rather than just having lines of dialogue pasted onscreen, the subtitles become part of the styling. For example, a boy is swimming and gets a bloody nose while a vampire beckons him. As the blood wisps away in the water, the subtitles (blood red) wisp away in the same fashion. The original Russian audience didn’t get this addition, and it doesn’t make any difference in the overall picture, but there’s a distinct sense of artistic endeavor that I really appreciate.

I’m excited to see the other two films. The next, Day Watch, has been released in Russia and will presumably arrive in America next year. This is the kind of movie, thoughtful, beautiful, stylish, and action-packed, that can appeal to many audiences at once. It does suffer some as a result but, overall, is quite worthy of multiple viewings.