Night Watch is the movie that Underworld fans hoped for but never really got. A huge hit in its native Russia, writer-director Timur Bekmambetov's jarring, cluttered and convoluted horror-fantasy film is a blended cocktail of The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Wars. Bursting with stylistic imagery, rapid-fire editing and an unflagging pace, this epic story of monsters and mysticism is as claustrophobic as it is caffeinated. Based on a trilogy of novels by Sergei Lukyanenko, it was reportedly shot for around $5 million, but has the look of a film 10 times that costly.
After centuries of war, the forces of light (shape-shifters and clairvoyants who make up the "night watch") and dark (vampires and witches known as the "day watch") have formed a tenuous truce, where neither side is permitted to recruit for their cause. Humans and "others" must choose their paths without interference. Both sides await the arrival of the "great other," an individual prophesied to forever tip the scales in one direction.
Enter Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), a man desperate to win back his adulterous wife. He visits a witch and learns his wife is pregnant with another man's child. The witch's magical attempt to end the pregnancy is interrupted by agents of the night watch, and Anton then discovers that he too is an "other." Shamed by his actions, he joins the agents to help enforce the treaty. But 12 years later, while thwarting a vampire attack on a young boy, he kills a member of the day watch and threatens to unravel the ceasefire and bring on the apocalypse.
Much like the fantasy novels of Neil Gaiman or Clive Barker, Night Watch reveals an endless string of supernatural affectations and complicated explanations. The film is bursting with fantastical invention: A child's toy sprouts spider legs, a swarm of crows circles the apartment building of a cursed woman, invisible fiends can only be seen in mirrors. What it lacks, however, is thematic or allegorical depth. What should have been an exhilarating epic becomes a jumble of snazzy visuals and long-winded exposition. Beneath the turmoil there's little to connect with.
The cast breathes life into mostly outrageous characters, even though Bekmambetov's script gives them little to work with. Anton should be the emotional anchor in this chaotic storm, but the frenzied storyline never pauses long enough to let us care about him.
Stylistically, however, the film surprises and impresses. The thundering sound track and convulsive imagery mix well, building suspense and dread. Bekmambetov's choice of Moscow locations establishes a gritty world that's both familiar and otherworldly. The sheer level of visual imagination on display surpasses much of what comes out of Hollywood today. Even the subtitles are cool: pulsing, evaporating and changing color. But Bekmambetov could take a few lessons from Hollywood in terms of shooting a coherent fight scene. His rapid-fire editing too often leaves the viewer dizzy and lost.
Night Watch, though far from perfect, wields mythology to good effect and packs a visceral punch. You may get confused, but you'll never be bored. And, the film's final stretch delivers a surprise cliffhanger that will leave you wanting more. The sequel, Day Watch, has just been released in Russia. No word yet as to when it will arrive stateside.
In Russian with English subtitles. Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].