(Timur Bekamambetiv, Russia, 2004)
The specification was spot on: foreign language (Russian even), not 'mainstream', high concept fantasy, shape shifting characters, visually impressive, dark, moody, not American. Yep, Night Watch had the ideal credentials to be a perfect DSO film.
It is with some regret then that I have to point out that worthwhile though it is, it isn't a great film. Yet credit is undeniably due to all involved. Except perhaps those responsible for the script. Based on the novel trilogy by Sergei Lukyanenko, director Timur Bekmambetov shares responsibility for the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, who recently shared a co-writing credit on Stone's Alexander and is attached to James Cameron's forthcoming live action version of Battle Angel (Alita/Gunmu). (Personal expectations of that project have therefore just taken something of a dent.) The biggest problem with the script is that it fails to make anything unique of the eons old 'good vs evil' plot.
The portentous voice at the start (oddly in English given that the remainder of the film plays in its original language with subtitles) sets outs the overly familiar territory as we are treated to a visual representation of armoured Goths bashing hell, blood and brains out of each other. There is a parallel world that exists alongside our own that most never get to see (the Gloom). This is where the Others reside. Some are on the side of Light and some on the side of Dark. A truce between the two forces strikes an uneasy balance between them, while the 'night watch' teams of the title patrol the streets after the sun has gone down, making sure the Dark vampires don't snatch unsuspecting humans and start feeding on them. However, legends foretell of a time when a catalyst (the Great Other) will once again pit good against evil, and this is where we come in to a gloomy modern day Moscow. Hmm, sounds very much like a remake of the Wicked City manga/anime, and to some extent it is.
Visually, the film is imaginative if unremittingly dingy. This is Russia as Jean Pierre Jeunet might see things. There's a dirty, gritty reality to the streets that somehow seems to blend easily with strong colours, tricksy camera work (and special effects) and quirky sensibilities. Thankfully, there are some moments of light relief and the attempts at humour work pretty well. I particularly liked the obsession with irritating, buzzing insects and what Fox have done with their subtitles on the international release is almost worth the price of admission alone. Actually, sub-titles isn't quite accurate for they sometimes pop up all over the screen when appropriate. If a vampire speaks, the words are in red and swirl off like blood dissolving in water. At other times they reflect the tone of the scene: if a character is furious the titles smack up on the screen, in others they gently disappear or fold over. The sense is very much how good letterers add to the experience of reading a comic.
At times this also feels like a typical Gilliam project, with the impression that years have been spent fleshing out the universe in which these characters inhabit (no doubt a result of the trilogy upon which it is based), glimpses of which constantly pop into the frame throughout, but do little to engage the viewer or actually move the story forward. The purpose and motivation of many of the characters is often muddled or confusing. Technically, there's little to complain about. The special effects are just that: special and very effective, aided immeasurably by the non-Hollywood sensibilities behind the production. Fox's arthouse label Searchlight liked this so much they committed enough cash to the production team so that they could deliver two more installments, thus providing the studio with the Hollywood Holy Grail: 'The Franchise' (I can see Fox doing the global revenue calculations on the various regional DVD box sets already).
the giddy journey, the denouement really is a damp squib and the ending unsatisfying
given what has gone before. Whilst I'd gladly be interested in seeing how the
universe established here is explored in sequels (although early word on the third
entry is that it will be in English for some reason), there's no getting away
from the conclusion that Night Watch is more admirable than entertaining.
Rob Dyer (March, 2006)
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Wicked City (anime)
Wicked City (live action)
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