“As long as humanity has existed,” the somber voice intones, “there have been Others among us: witches, sorcerers, shape-shifters.” And for as long as the movies have existed, they have cashed in on human curiosity about just what those Others might be up to.
“Night Watch,” however, does the familiar a little differently. Think of it as a popcorn movie with a vodka chaser. A really strong vodka chaser.
In its Russian homeland, “Night Watch” has been nothing less than a phenomenon. It is the highest-grossing film ever in that country, taking in more money in three weeks than the “Lord of the Rings” finale earned in two months, and its just-released sequel, “Day Watch,” the second film of a projected trilogy, is poised to earn even more.
The secret behind this success is the way “Night Watch” director Timur Bekmambetov has combined two things that never connected before. He’s taken a glossy Hollywood-type fantasy thriller about the battle between supernatural forces of good and evil right here on planet Earth and infused it with a homegrown, distinctively Russian soul.
That means a movie full of characters, including protagonist Anton Gorodetsky (Russian heartthrob Konstantin Khabensky), who specializes in morose, dejected looks. It means individuals who think nothing of suddenly breaking into mournful dirges such as “love still lives in my wounded heart.” It means a despondent world view that believes “it is easier for men to destroy the light within them than to resist the darkness.”
But if this sounds like the recipe for a dispiriting movie, “Night Watch” is anything but. The act of Russianizing traditionally Hollywood material has brought a nice freshness to a tired genre, making the film feel less formulaic than usual.
Also helping is filmmaker Bekmambetov’s commercial and video background. Working from a popular novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, the director has used quick-cutting, propulsive music and colorful locales to invigorate “Night Watch” with an unmistakable and quite welcome visceral energy.
What Bekmambetov doesn’t do, and this is something of a relief, is whiplash you with fear. The film’s fright moments are mild by Hollywood’s dubious standards, and the blood and guts, though present, are similarly not as voluminous as they might be. There’s something pleasantly old-fashioned and almost corny about some of “Night Watch’s” situations, and its sense of atmospheric strangeness, the ability to create an unseen world that is parallel to our own, adds to this.
Much of “Night Watch’s” violence comes in a prologue, set, at least in the Russian version, specifically in 1342, when a bloody battle between the supernatural forces of good and evil takes place on one very narrow bridge.
The battle is so horrific that both sides agree on a truce. No Other can be forced to turn to either good or evil, with the Night Watch keeping an eye on the dark side and the Day Watch eyeballing the light. For hundreds of years now, everyone has been maintaining the equilibrium and marking time, waiting for the arrival of the prophesized Great Other, whose choice for good or evil “will change the balance forever.”
Enter Anton, at first in yet another prologue, this one set in 1992, when he visits a witch to see if she can force his girlfriend to return to him. This action has all kinds of consequences, one of which is Anton’s realization that he too is an Other.
Cut to present-day Moscow, where Anton works for the Night Watch and, armed largely with a flashlight with a special bulb, protects civilians from marauding vampires. Aided by his partner, Olga, a woman who has spent 60 years as a stuffed owl (don’t ask, because the film won’t tell you), he is tasked with guarding a 12-year-old boy named Yegor, who appears to be in special danger.
Also in danger is the entire city of Moscow. A mythological woman called the Cursed Virgin has reappeared, creating a terrifying vortex of abysmal luck that just might herald a massive bloodbath unless the Night Watch can correct the situation. As if they didn’t already have enough to do.
If this doesn’t seem to make sense, rest assured that seeing the film does not make anything any clearer. To appreciate “Night Watch,” you have to accept it as one of those chaotic cartoon movies that refuse to completely add up. Its clearly derivative plot may seem silly to us, but its characters take it completely seriously. Their belief, it turns out, makes all the difference in the world.
‘Night Watch’ (Nochnoi Gozor)
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images and language
A Fox Searchlight release. Director Timur Bekmambetov. Screenplay Bekmambetov, Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko. Producers Anatoly Maximov, Konstantin Ernst. Cinematographer Sergei Trofimov. Editor Dmitri Kiselev. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles.
In general release.