3½ stars (out of four)
"Night Watch" is a contemporary Russian movie that you could honestly call revolutionary, more for its style than its politics. In this full-throttle science fiction tale of vampires, shape-shifters and warring supernatural armies, breakthrough writer-director Timur Bekmambetov opens a shocking new contemporary world--a Moscow of poverty, crime and moral breakdown--but he does it in Western-influenced techniques a world away from what we usually imagine as standard Russian cinema.
Bekmambetov isn't a new radical virtuoso such as the Marxist Sergei Eisenstein in the '20s or the Christian mystic Andrei Tarkovsky in the '60s. Instead, he has the high-torque skills of such cinema-obsessed U.S. movie junkies as Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers (both admitted Bekmambetov influences), mingled with classic Russian grimness and darkness. He uses them to blast us right out of our seats.
Schooled in TV commercials, Bekmambetov creates one of those horrific pop fantasy worlds American movies are so adept at, to our occasional glory and sometime shame. The movie, Russia's all-time top domestic grosser on its first 2004 release, is based on a popular Russian fantasy-science fiction novel by Bekmambetov's co-scenarist, Sergei Lukyanenko --the first of a literary trilogy that will eventually become a trilogy of movies. Here, the two collaborators take the macabre, zingy elements of 20th Century movie horror--a bloody, creepy gallery of vampires and other night creatures--and give them ancient context and modern edge.
In the haunted world of "Night Watch," battles rage under the noses of the general populace between the armies of Good and Evil, each of which has special squadrons of police to scout the other s' terrain. The good cops, the forces of light, which include the movie's scruffy hero Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), are the titular Night Watch, protecting humankind in the dark hours. Their counterparts, the Day Watch, strike blows for the bad during daylight.
The movie starts with a medieval battle prologue, where good leader Boris Geser (or Gesser in the subtitles, played by Vladimir Menshov) and bad leader Zavulon (Victor Verzhbitsky, who looks like a blond Harry Dean Stanton) declare truce, setting up the Night-and-Day rulebook. Then it flashes forward to 1992, where we meet young Anton, and learn of a boy soon to be born, Yegor , who may be the fabled, long-awaited Great One.
The non-stop contemporary adventures that follow 12 years later keep mixing up old and new imagery: a punk blood-junkie vampire (Anna Dubrovskaya), a virginal beauty/jinx (Maria Poroshina) on the subway, blood-and-booze cocktails, 12-year-old Yegor (Dima Martynov) watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer " on TV, a vortex filled with dark, whirling birds over a blacked-out Moscow and a series of supernatural fights waged all over the city, in streets and dirty, packed apartment buildings. Through it all, the moviemakers keep catching a grimy sense of everyday (or every-night) reality that makes the jolts hit harder.
"Night Watch" imbues those old pop terrors with the trashy, crime-ridden, drug-drenched and street-dangerous world of Moscow today. The actors, meanwhile, play their roles with from-the-guts realism we associate with Stanislavsky.
Khabensky has a "Serpico" shaggy-cop quality and the charismatic Night Watch papa/boss Geser is played by Vladimir Menshov, director of the warm-hearted, slightly sappy Russian romance, "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears," which was a surprise 1980 Oscar winner--and an undeserving one. It beat out Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" and Truffaut's "The Last Metro," which might qualify Menshov for the forces of evil.
Still and all, "Night Watch" gripped and excited me and made me laugh. Even though you couldn't call it a great science fiction movie, on the level of Tarkovsky's "Solaris" and "Stalker" it's often a great, heart-pumping, blow-you-to-the walls movie experience. "Night Watch" may not affect us as it did the Russians, but the best of it fires up the devils and angels of the imagination.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; written by Bekmambetov, Sergei Lukyanenko, Laeta Kalogridis (English language screenplay), from the novel by Lukyanenko; photographed by Sergei Trofimov; edited by Dmitri Kiselev; art directors Valery Victorov, Mukhtar Mirzakeyev; music by Yuri Poteyenko; produced by Anatoly Maximov, Konstantin Ernst. In English and Russian, with English subtitles. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing images and language).
Anton Gorodetsky - Konstantin Khabensky
Boris Geser - Vladimir Menshov
Kostya - Alexei Chadov
Kostya's father - Valery Zolotukhin
Svetlana - Maria Poroshina
Olga - Galina Tunina
Zavulon - Victor VerzhbitskyCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times