Judge Joel Pearce says you don't have to understand this Russian horror-action flick to think it's cool.
As long as humanity has existed, there have been Others among us. They are human, yet they have abilities beyond those of ordinary men.
I was excited about Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor) as soon as I started hearing rumblings of a great epic horror film from Russia. I bought the Russian DVD as soon as it became available, then waited for Fox to finally release a properly subtitled version. Well, here it is, though not quite in the way I had hoped.
Facts of the Case
The Others are all around us, living what appear to be ordinary lives. They were locked in an eternal battle of dark and light, though for centuries the fighting has ceased. A truce was called between light and dark once it became clear that ongoing fights would result in absolute destruction. Legend tells of one Other, so powerful that he (or she) would tip the balance, would be able to bring on the final epic battle between good and evil and lead one side to victory.
Night Watch is not the story of that battle. Instead, it follows Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), a newly awakened Other who will play a critical role in the fulfillment of that prophecy. Anton chooses the light side, where his power to see into the future tosses him prematurely into the front lines of the Nightwatch, a group responsible for keeping the dark Others in check. Twelve years after his awakening, Anton is sent to rescue a child named Yegor (Dmitri Martynov) from a pair of vampires. Along the way, he sees a woman named Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) carrying a terrible curse. If what he sees comes true, it could bring about the final battle between good and evil. The race is on, and the Nightwatch must stop the curse from coming to fruition.
Hype is a dangerous tool in the hands of the film industry. On one hand, the Hollywood machine is very good at building hype—in fact, that's its primary function. When that kind of energy is focused on something unique like a Russian action/horror epic blockbuster, the North American audience gets excited about something they wouldn't even consider otherwise. That hype is a double-edged sword, though. Sometimes the hype machine gets a little out of hand, usually thanks to someone like Harry Knowles or Quentin Tarantino. By the time we actually get to see the film in question, it isn't nearly as cool or huge or special as we expect.
Night Watch is a prime example. Had it not been for a few very excited, very vocal critics early on, few of us would have even heard of this Russian success story. Eventually, some little indie label would have picked it up for DVD release, and a few of us would have come across it, and recommended it warmly to our friends. Everyone else would have remained blissfully ignorant, not realizing that Russia had any desire to break into the cool big-budget movie market. Instead, when the hype machine got rolling, Fox decided to step in. They got the rights to this film and the sequel (Day Watch), proclaimed that they had discovered the new Matrix, got a few critics to proclaim the second coming, and generally created a big hullabaloo.
Then, they waited.
Fox was going to release it on Halloween, promising an unusually wide release for a foreign film. When it was pushed off, the hype machine slowed down, then fizzled when Night Watch limped out to limited release a few months later to lukewarm reviews. At this point, Fox had helped to fund the second film, forcing director Timur Bekmambetov into some massive changes, then strong-armed the Russian producers into moving production of the third film to Hollywood with an English-speaking cast. All before most of us even had a chance to watch the original film.
Well, now it's here. On DVD, everyone who was caught up in the hype machine can finally just watch the thing already. Or, perhaps you've come here to find out whether it's really worth all the fuss.
But that's a hard thing to answer. Night Watch doesn't live up to the expectations that preceded it, but let's face it—few movies could. The film has some serious weaknesses, which have been getting a lot more attention recently. I want to use these weaknesses to try to explore what makes Night Watch both disappointing and worth checking out.
The biggest complaint that American critics have regards the film's admitted lack of explanation. Even after seeing it a few times now, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Fox has tried really hard to explain the mythology, but whether it's assumed that we will already understand Russian mythology or the screenwriters forgot to include rational exposition, we don't really learn much about the Others or how their powers work. Watching this movie is not unlike getting lost in a circus: There are wild things happening all around, but you have no idea how you got there.
Call me crazy, but I kind of like the lack of exposition. The last thing I want at the front end of a film like Night Watch is a half-hour of history and character development. The narrated introduction is quick and to the point, giving us just enough information that we don't get completely lost. Then, it gets right to the action, leaving us to explore the mysteries of the mythology ourselves. Because we don't fully understand them, the powers of the Others remain more mythic and cool. We don't know what will come next, and that's not a bad thing.
Many viewers are also disappointed with the ending, which arrives quite abruptly just as the story gets really good. While there isn't much exposition in the film, we do spend these two hours getting to know Anton and the other key characters in the upcoming battle. Since the notion of a massive battle between the light and dark Others is a cool one, it's disappointing that we don't get to see it. After all, the prophecy has been pronounced and we darn well know it's coming. I can do little to defend this except to say the following: I have seen Day Watch, and it is worth the wait. Just like Spider-man and X-Men, Night Watch is a good first film that paves the way for a truly great sequel.
Finally, many viewers are disappointed to realize that Night Watch is not high art. "We came to see a great foreign film," they cry, "and this is just a big, loud action movie." This is partly a problem with the studio marketing, and partly a problem with the audience. While Fox was quick to snaffle up the release rights for Night Watch, they were a lot less sure how to sell it. Is it an action movie? Is it a horror film? Could they dare call it an epic fantasy a couple years after The Lord of the Rings? In reality, it's a big, loud, blockbuster event movie. It shares more with Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott co-productions than it does with the kind of film we usually see imported from overseas. An audience issue also exists, which must have made it a more serious problem. The people who would most likely enjoy Night Watch would avoid it, since it's a foreign film. The audience that would flock to see a cool Russian film would likely dismiss it as base and silly. It certainly does lack the intelligence and cohesiveness of The Matrix, though it's still a blast for anyone who can let themselves enjoy a fun dose of pure entertainment.
Visually, the film is a masterpiece. Director Timur Bekmambetov borrows heavily from a number of styles and genres, and Night Watch explodes from the screen in an undeniably cool way. The film jumps continents and centuries in a matter of seconds, and each set has its own look and feel. The cast of characters is just as varied, and the film quickly catches the audience up through creativity and pure kinetic force. He is a confident director, and although it feels like he used this production to explore all of the possibilities of big budget filmmaking, he has also found a unique style that works well for him.
I have mixed feelings about the new Fox DVD. Technically, it is superb. The video transfer is beautiful, easily handling everything the visuals can throw at it. There is no bleeding, even in scenes with lots of motion and lots of red. The black levels are fantastic, showing shadow detail that my Russian DVD couldn't even approach. At times, the quality is limited slightly by weaknesses in the source, but it looks better than I ever expected the film to look. The subtitles on the Russian version do flow with the action, creatively incorporating themselves into the film. This is occasionally distracting, but after the novelty wears off, it's a great way to have them set up. The sound transfer is excellent as well, delivering a bold Dolby 5.1 surround track that makes excellent use of all channels and the LFE. The English dub is quite good, featuring what sounds like most of the original cast translating their own lines. At times, the dub is difficult to understand, as the dialogue was recorded a bit too low.
As I already mentioned, Fox did make some significant changes for the "international" version presented on this disc. The opening sequence has been translated and heavily changed, explaining the history of the Others in a lot more detail. A subplot on a plane has been removed, which had one of the funniest exchanges in the original version of the film. One of the Others has been removed from the film completely, along with an awkward scene that was really only there to help the film's sponsors. Still, the character returns in the sequel, so I don't know how Fox is going to get around that. More troubling than the omissions are the added sequences: flashbacks that explain things left alone in the original version. Since they didn't have any footage to work with, they use other footage of the characters talking, and make it flash in and out. I feel these flashbacks do too much to explain the details of being an Other, and they slow down the narrative far more than the scenes that were cut. Overall, this version of the film runs 10 minutes shorter than the original. Although I understand why Fox made these changes, I wish they had left the film intact on the Russian side of the disc. That way, we could have decided which was the better version of the film.
There are a few extras, including a commentary (in English) by Bekmambetov. It's a good track, and he talks with candor about his directorial choices and the changes that were made to this version (he considers it an adaptation rather than a translation). There is also a "sneak peek" at the upcoming sequels, which is really just a short interview, where Bekmambetov admits that he was forced to change the setting of the third film to America, and that he has no idea what it's going to be about yet. More than anything else, this disc offers a picture of what happens when a studio steps in and markets a film that doesn't belong to it. Still, I guess we know that we have at least one more cool "Watch" film coming up.
Like the best mythology, Night Watch weaves together a tapestry of characters and stories, almost as if it was the result of a visual mythology that's been passed down across generations. This is the film version of oral mythmaking, and Bekmambetov uses the medium to explore and pass on his version of Russian myth. Watching it is like sitting around a campfire as he tells this familiar story in his own unique way. Parts are scary, parts are funny, and there is a sense of moral lessons and philosophy just below the surface of the story, when they won't get in the way of the storytelling. Purists complain that it does not line up with the novels it is based on, and that it really has nothing to do with Russian mythology. That may be so, but it is mythic storytelling, with all of the beauty, mystery, and immediacy that belongs in the genre. The changes made to the film and Fox's ham-handed approach to the DVD shouldn't stop you from experiencing Night Watch, which is a thoroughly enjoyable (and unpretentious) piece of filmmaking.
Though Fox is more dark than light in this case, its greed allowed for Night Watch to reach North America. Not guilty.
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