Night Watch

From Russia with horror. Nght Watch may contain a lot of mumbo jumbo but get past that and it's great, reckons Lance Barrington.

By Lance Barrington

The heart sinks a little, I find, when you hear the words ‘ground-breaking fantasy trilogy’, as pronounced by gruff Hollywood trailer voice™. So I was nonplussed to hear the phrase in the previews before the rather excellent the Consequences of Love. The film was called Night Watch and there were no stars on show, although the effects looked to be pretty amazing, so I forgot about it for a while, then heard it was Russian, and my curiosity got the better of me.

Based on a bestselling series of books, the film became the top-grossing domestic film of all time in Russia when it was released, and for good reason. Telling the story of the eternal battle between the armies of the dark and the armies of the light, Night Watch is multiplex entertainment with a Russian twist. It tells the story of the ‘others’, supernaturally gifted human beings who side either with the forces of the dark – and become vampires seeking to gorge on human blood – or of the light; patrolling the uneasy 1000-year truce between the two is the ‘day watch’ for the dark and the corresponding ‘night watch’ for the light. Stuck in the middle of this is Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), an ‘other’ brought into the light through dark deeds, who will play a pivotal role in great events. Confused yet? Well add in an ancient prophesy about a ‘great one’, a cursed virgin and an apocalyptic battle and you can be forgiven. The Highlander crossed with The Matrix, anyone? Full of mumbo-jumbo it may be, but Night Watch is a thoroughly entertaining and in some aspects very original blockbuster movie.

What sounds like a mish-mash is saved by the holy trinity of directing, acting and production design. Timur Bekmambetov has been described as Russia’s Tarantino, and the comparison holds up, to an extent: schooled in commercials, Bekmambetov is of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ school of filmmaking. Swooping, balletic shots over a crumbling yet vibrant Moscow cut lightning-fast with funny angles and extreme close-ups. Tarkovsky he ain’t, but he sure knows how to handle an action sequence.

Every shot is virtuoso in its own way and the special effects are jawdropping. Mixing in a little stop-motion (reminiscent of Svankmajer – not the only touch of Eastern Bloc surrealism) with incredible CGI, the film manages to create a fully realised and original visual world in which the action unspools. Matrix or Star Wars comparisons are inevitable, but the film's look is distinctive and fascinating. This is a non-Hollywood take on the fantasy/horror epic and as such is grounded in a grainy lo-fi aesthetic, crumbling locations and a certain tendency towards wilful obscurity. No extraneous explanations are provided (which in The Matrix one suspects were as much for Keanu’s benefit as anyone else’s) meaning you have to work a little for the story, but that’s all the better.

Anton, too, is no neo: his face seems heavy with existential angst, and he heads up a strong cast peopled with actors unknown to Western eyes, though I am assured they are all very experienced and classically trained (an aside: isn’t it nice to see people in films who look, well, different? It gives the film a depth that many Hollywood productions trade for sheen). And when you consider that it was made for less than the fee of Keanu Reeves’ English coach (OK, I exaggerate – but $5 million is petty cash in Hollywood), and you’ve got yourself a winner. I’m not going to place any bets on whether they balls up the two sequels (or spoil it all with prequels), but this is a great start. Stylish, mysterious and audacious, this is the real deal.
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