Night Watch (2004)
I can't recall ever seeing a Russian film before, so this is a first. Night Watch, or Nochnoy Dozor to you comrade (sorry, I know it was really lame), is the first part of a trilogy of fantasy films based on a series of books. It was a huge hit in Russia, becoming the highest grossing film there for a while. It was released in an International version that lost a few elements but also added some stuff in that made the story's universe a little clearer. The version I saw was the original Russian cut, and I have to admit it could do with a little clarity, as it's a densely packed film that made my head spin.
Night Watch begins sometime around 1000 AD, in the midst of an epic, mythic battle between the forces of light and dark, comprised of supernatural people called 'Others'. The battle is a stalemate, and the leaders of the two sides decide to come to a truce. They both agree to limit and control each sides activities; a group of 'Dark Others' called the Day Watch would police the 'Light Others', with a corresponding Night Watch to police the 'Dark Others'. A prophecy fortells of a chosen one of some sort who will appear in a thousand years and side with the Dark Others and allow them to win the war. Flash forward to the early 90s (the dark days). A man named Anton sees a 'witch' about casting a spell to get his wife back from a man she's run off with. Turns out this witch is breaking the rules though, and she gets busted by the Night Watch, who were using the unsuspecting Anton as bait. To the surprise of the Night Watch team, Anton can see them; turns out he's also an Other.
And from this point onwards, the confusion begins. Ten years after the witch incident, Anton is working for the Night Watch - he chose to become a Light Other. He's told to find a boy who's being illegally targeted by some Dark Others. Anton seems hung over or disoriented, but he goes to his Dark Other neighbour for some blood, which he needs to drink to track the boy (Anton appears to be a vampire). The boy meanwhile is 'summoned' through some kind of telepathy to the bad guys' lair, where a Dark Vampire and his vampire girlfriend await him. Luckily, Anton stumbles in there like a deranged man and saves the kid, but not before the Vampire is killed and he himself has taken a serious beating. Unfortunately for Anton killing is not allowed, and he finds himself in some trouble with the Dark Others, who also decide to finish 'turning' the boy (who may be special in some way). Anton is then assigned a partner to help him out - an owl who soon transforms into a chick. There's also a woman who has been cursed with a 'bad luck' spell that has created a vortex that is causing everything it interacts with to experience bad luck, and the Night Watch have to stop her somehow. These events appear to all be part of the prophecy that was foretold a thousand years earlier.
A lot of stuff happens, but the above summary is the gist of the plot. It's the details, though, that are confusing. Unlike, say, the Underworld films, Night Watch has the feel of being a rich and detailed universe which wasn't constructed purely for 'coolness'. The problem is the film doesn't give much context or explanation for what is depicted - it's almost like trying to watch a TV series from the middle, after the universe is established and viewers are expected to already understand the rules. There's a history to the characters that we are not privy to. This is sometimes a good thing, as with Anton's partner's backstory - she was punished for some unspecified crime by being turned into a stuffed owl for decades before finally being released. That kind of detail gives the universe depth. But often, unexplained things are directly related to the plot, and that's when it becomes frustrating.
Some of the cool but confusing things in Night Watch: Animal forms - the Others seem to be able to transform into animal forms at times, but the rules aren't made clear. Can they all do it, or just some of them? What are these licenses that are mentioned? There's an implication that the Night Watch issue licenses for the Dark Others to engage in their acts, but then bust them for it anyway, but this idea doesn't really go anywhere. Why is Anton a vampire if he's Light, or is that something that happens only when he drinks blood and becomes a 'seer'? And on a related note, what are the powers of the Others exactly? And can they be seen by normal people, since they're always surprised when someone sees them? If not, how do they go around interacting with the world - they drive cars and so on, do people see driverless cars? And what the hell exactly is the 'Gloom' (parallel universe) that they can enter? Why do the Dark Others have a videogame that appears to depict events in the film? And how is it possible for the Others to look up future events on a website, does the webmaster have powers of prescience?
Admittedly, some things become vaguely clear as you're watching, or rather it's possible to make reasonable guesses as more details come to light. Perhaps a re-watch would clarify things and allow me to pick up on details that I missed the first time round. Seeing this stuff is really cool, it's depicted with a matter-of-fact assurance that suggests that it all makes sense. While none of these ideas are original in their own - indeed, the broad concept of good vs. evil and chosen ones is trite - this particular interpretation and combination of elements is unique.
The film itself is well made, especially given the $5 million budget! At a time when the average Hollywood film costs in excess of ten times that, it's hard not to be impressed by Night Watch. Although the production is mostly constrained to real world locations and costumes, it still has a surreal look and atmosphere, and the accompanying special effects are pretty nifty. It all looks grungy and real, without that unnatural sheen that accompanies too many similarly themed films. It moves along at a fast pace and the few action sequences present aren't too shabby. The script is probably the weakest link - not only is the Universe not well explained, but the characters are also fairly two-dimensional. There's nothing special performance-wise either - Konstantin Khabensky is the standout as Anton, a mixture of confusion and bravado. Galina Tyunina is interesting in a mysterious sort of way as Olga. Mariya Poroshina is kinda creepy as the demure, cursed vortex ridden Svetlana. Dmitry Martynov does a decent job as the kid, Yegor. The rest of the cast are alright, but don't really register.
Night Watch is a mixed bag. It hints at something that could've been really cool, but it ends up being a frustrating missed opportunity. It's a distinctive take on familiar subject matter that feels original. It's entertaining and confusing in equal measure. Overall, it's kinda cool, and perhaps the sequels flesh things out a bit better. For genre fans, it's worth watching, not least because it's interesting to see a Russian take on the type of film usually associated with big budget Hollywood movies.