Judge Dan Mancini never knew vampire hunting could be so dull.
All that stands between light and darkness is the Night Watch.
In the distant past a select group of human beings learned to step into the Gloom and became Others—seers, shape-shifters, vampires, and other supernatural beings. For ages a war raged between the Light Others and the Dark Others, until both sides agreed to a truce. Under the terms of the truce, newly emerging Others were granted the freedom to choose light or darkness without interference from either side. Each side was empowered to police the other: The Night Watch monitors the Dark Others; the Day Watch monitors the Light Others.
In 1992, Anton Gorodetsky discovers he's an Other while visiting a witch in order to win back his wife from her lover and to end the life of the child she's carrying. Anton is soon recruited into the Night Watch. Twelve years later he's a down-on-his-luck loser, living in a shabby apartment, haunted by his broken past and the burden of his gig as a supernatural policeman—a career at which he is roundly mediocre. The adventure kicks into high gear when Anton's boss assigns him the mission of tracking down and protecting a young boy being psychically called to his own doom by a pair of vampires. During his quest, Anton discovers a woman whose curse may bring about the end of the world and learns that the boy may be fated to forever shift the balance between the Light and Dark Others.
In adapting Sergei Lukyanenko's horror-adventure novel to the screen, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) does a competent job in streamlining a literary story that is perhaps too obsessed with describing in minute detail the rules by which its fantasy world operates. Bekmambetov outlines the over-arching conflict in a brief flashback introduction, then leaves aside many of the boring specifics about how people become seers or vampires in favor of getting on with the drama. Judging by the fact that many viewers have found the movie incoherent, I'd say his efforts weren't entirely successful. I found Bekmambetov's approach entirely appropriate to the medium of film. I didn't have trouble following the story and was thankful not to be buried in exposition. With the exception of the brief and essential prologue, the movie drops you into the conceptual deep-end and expects you to figure things out as you go, but that was all right by me. And it all makes a lot more sense on a second viewing.
Unfortunately, pacing problems remain despite Bekmambetov's efforts at streamlining the story. The movie is dramatically lean, but lacks a proper sense of urgency. When Anton faces off against a pair of vampires lovers early in the film, the sequence isn't as creepy, thrilling, or soaked in dread as it needs to be. The director crosscuts between Anton's fight for his life and his Night Watch teammates comically racing to his location in their bright yellow truck, but doesn't manage to instill a fear in us that Anton's backup might arrive too late. In fact, the film challenges our hero with a series of time-dependent tasks, yet never once was I on the edge of my seat. In addition, the relationship between two of the central characters (I'm carefully trying to avoid giving away any surprises here) is so lacking in emotional resonance that there's nothing for the plot to congeal around. It all plays like meaningless, rote action. It's unfortunate that Bekmambetov poured much energy into stylistic flourishes like speed ramping, freeze-frames, and digital effects showing the path of an electrical current inside an old and dingy wall after a door buzzer has been pressed instead of paying more attention to the fundamentals of pacing and character. Night Watch is a horror-action movie that presents a fascinating world and engaging (if somewhat predictable) plot but never quite manages to scare or thrill or move its audience.
Fox's Blu-ray release presents the International version of Night Watch. It runs 10 minutes shorter than the Russian version (which I've not seen). The movie looks solid if not spectacular on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer is clear and detailed. Colors are accurate. Most importantly, black levels are solid but supple, reproducing the movie's dark lighting and production design without losing detail to black crush. Unwanted artifacts from digital noise reduction and other tampering are non-existent (at least I didn't notice any). The DTS HD lossless audio track in the movie's original Russian is rock solid (the prologue narration at the beginning is thankfully in English in the International cut in order to spare us from having to read long and conceptually dense subtitles). The entire soundstage is used to great effect, creating a believable ambient space while making the most of the movie's loud effects and music. English and French dubs are also offered (presented in DTS 5.1 and Dolby 5.1, respectively) but pale in comparison to the original Russian.
The disc has a meaty collection of extras—especially compared to the previous DVD release. Bekmambetov provides a feature-length audio commentary, while Sergei Lukyanenko offers a text commentary in which he delves into the minutiae of his novel. Together they provide plenty of annotations for those baffled by the movie's plot. There are 30 minutes of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending that is no more satisfying than the weak finale Bekmambetov went with. A 40-minute making-of documentary and two brief featurettes—"Night Watch Trilogy" and "Characters, Story and Subtitles"—provide a mildly interesting look at the making of the film and its themes. Finally, there's a gallery of still images from a comic book version of Night Watch, a poster art gallery, and a theatrical trailer. The disc is also D-Box equipped if you're into that sort of thing.
Night Watch is a technically competent but dramatically unsatisfying mess—a horror movie that doesn't scare, an action epic that doesn't thrill, and a subversive family drama that is trite and emotionally flat. I wanted to like it, but couldn't.
Guilty as charged.
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