Tonight we chose a double feature of two recent Russian films that actually made a bit of a splash in the US market and have since achieved somewhat of a cult following: Night Watch: Nochoy dozor, (2004) and its "sequel," Day Watch: Dnevoy dozor (2006). Apparently, in Russia these two films managed to achieve phenomenal popularity approaching "blockbuster status," to the extent that people snapped up ringtones of the music from the film. Though they obviously didn't rise to such heights in the US, they did manage to crash quite flashily (and loudly!) through the language barrier (and the general US indifference to "foreign" films) to gain an enthusiastic following among sci-fi and action fans. We first heard of Night Watch a couple of years ago when one of Fernymoss' friends urged us to see it, saying only that any attempts to pigeonhole the film were useless and to trust him, it was excellent, and we should just give it an open-minded shot. So we did ... and we were dazzled and energized by its stunning visual pizazz and its epic scope.
The first film, Night Watch, defies most genre expectations, though it's pretty easy to identify solidly established filmic tropes and connections to more familiar material. It focuses on the epic centuries old battle between Light and Dark (or Good and Evil, if you prefer), has vicious vampires (of a sort), quasi-immortal beings among mortals, and an eye popping, yes "sizzling" visual style used to magnificent effect. The film roars into action (after a brief prologue setting the stage of the conflict) and never lets up until its stunning climax some 114 minutes later. The experience of seeing this film totally uniformed of its particulars is, I think, the best way to approach it, so I'll refrain from revealing too much other than the basic plot lines that can help guide an initial viewing. Although for many, it will probably recall such films as The Matrix, numerous martial arts spectaculars and even The Omen, it is far from a derivative film and I'd argue that it reorganizes such filmic tropes in such an engaging and original manner that in no way could one characterize it as a "rip-off" or even "homage" to any particular film. It clearly stands on its own and is well worth more than one viewing, even for audiences not normally attracted to such fare. It's that good!
Night Watch opens with an expository prologue centering on the climactic ancient battle waged between the Light Ones and Dark Ones (referred to as "Others"), which is so bloody and catastrophic that both commanders (Gesser and Zavulon) call a truce between the sides in order to avoid complete annihilation. Flash forward to Moscow, 1992, where we are introduced to its human protagonist Anton Gorodetzky, who will serve as our guide into the modern phase of the battle. Through a (literally) fateful turn of events, he learns he is an "Other" who must choose to serve either the forces of Light or Dark ... at this point he then experiences a conversion which grants him with extraordinary powers and he is compelled to make his choice. He sides with the forces of Light and the battle is engaged once again ... he works with the "Night Watch" team who struggles to maintain the balance between the two sides by counteracting attacks on humans by the Dark Ones. Flash forward again to Moscow, 2004, where Anton is fully trained and active in the "Night Watch" forces, this time working to avoid catastrophe caused by the appearance of a powerful destructive vortex threatening the city.
The film's mythic proportions now having been established, Night Watch barrels on through numerous breath-taking skirmishes, adding depth and dimension (for both humans and immortals) to the narrative. To its immeasurable credit, Night Watch does establish a surprising depth of character to what could have been (as would probably be the case in an American attempt) rather cartoonish protagonists. Some of the material may seem fairly familiar, but there's a clearly Russian flavor to the action that, to this viewer, was refreshingly original. And that's what takes Night Watch far beyond the boundaries of the typical sci-fi or action film.
By far, the most astounding feature of this film is its visual execution, which is so engaging, exciting and originally conceived that it merits a viewing for this aspect alone. The photography, editing and special effects are used to such an inventive degree that one is never bored and most often amazed by just how much they communicate about this foreign world into which we have been plunged, along with Anton. We see much of it through his eyes as he learns what his role is in the battle, and learn along with him how the "rules" of this particular battle operate ... and how the potential for the violation of these very rules governs the fate of the entire world, which he is fighting to save. The die is thus cast for an apocalyptic battle that the forces of Light work at all costs to avoid, while the Dark Ones plot to bring on in full force. In this sense, the parameters of the classic epic have been recast in strikingly modern terms, using the tropes of popular sci-fi/action cinema. The ride is exhilarating, if a bit confusing at times (a second viewing is as richly rewarding), but at no point should the observant viewer be bored ... the pacing in the film is so impeccably established, that even if certain details may at first escape the viewer, it makes little difference. Thanks to the boundless humanity of our protagonist Anton, we're gladly along for the ride, rooting for him all the way. And we're far from disappointed in him as the narrative hurtles to its inevitably mythic dénouement, which neatly establishes the premise of the second film in a grandiose, yet never cheesy manner. Night Watch ultimately leaves the viewer wanting more, anticipating the outcome of the ultimate battle between the forces of Light and Dark ... which the following film, Day Watch delivers in spades!
A note on viewing this film. The DVD available in the US market has an English version on one side, and the original Russian on the other. If you choose to view this film, do NOT choose the English version because you'll miss the most inventive use of subtitles I have ever seen in a foreign language film. Besides paying respect to the original language, these subtitles are executed so cleverly that they actually add to the intrigue of the film because they jump about the screen, indicating who is saying what, thus eliminating some of the inevitable questions one often has about dialogue points. They integrate seamlessly within the action and actually complement the pleasure of viewing this film. Unfortunately, the distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures chose not to incorporate this into the release of Day Watch and I must say, it does suffer a bit because of it.
Having voiced this minor quibble with the American version, I must say that Day Watch definitely lives up to the potential the first film so successfully establishes, though if a bit less artfully. It picks up right where the first film left off and even if it does come in at longer running time (2 hours and 30 min), it provides a more than satisfying conclusion to the narrative in the previous film. We're back in present day New Year's 2006, where Anton struggles to continue the fight against the Dark Ones, despite his son's defection into their ranks. He sports new colleagues in his battle, and one particularly powerful one who joins him in the battle. But here, instead of saving the city from the ravages of the destructive vortex, he's engaged in a fight for the existence of the world itself. If he loses, the world will be plunged into an era of unspeakable darkness and doom ... if he wins, it may be able to survive ... and it all hinges upon his loyalty to his son or the woman he has come to love over the course of the events of the previous film. These are classic narrative tropes: pitting the hero against blood relations (saving his son) versus his own "selfish" desires to save the woman he loves.
These personal conflicts play out within the parameters of the larger battle of the "Great Ones" in both camps and place our hero Anton squarely in the middle, conflicted and confused. We follow his seemingly contradictory actions throughout the film, often depicted without a clearly coherent rationale, as we witness the inexorable sequence of events that have been put in motion. In a crucial moment, he is literally torn between the two worlds and must make a decision to side with one or the other, when given a deus ex machina that ultimately decides the outcome. Without revealing the decision he makes, I must say that this film concludes its narrative in a quite satisfying fashion, which still leaves things open for a future addendum to the story.
I'm not sure that I really want to see yet another film (though it's been reported there will be one titled Dusk Watch, based on the third novel in the series), but given the sheer bravado and brilliance of these first two films, I'll probably be compelled to take a look nonetheless. Day Watch replicates a lot of what made Night Watch so engaging, yet I didn't feel the urgency and humanity that permeated the first film. Yes, it wraps everything up with a satisfying bow, yet it somehow lacked some of the surprising elements that made the first film so rewarding. That's not to say that it's not worth watching if you liked the first installment (au contraire!), just that one is left feeling that the narrative arc has been successfully completed. It's a satisfying conclusion that doesn't beg for more elaboration and leaves certain elements tantalizingly open for future development. After the ride we had in the previous two films, I just question the necessity of continuing the series. And as in many cases, my hunches say just let it be. We'll see, ultimately, what may come of this series, but given the first two installments, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Caveats: Day Watch doesn't display the astounding visual virtuosity of the first film, but compensates with a great sense of humor. If you liked Night Watch you must see this "sequel." Whether you want to go beyond it depends on your degree of enthusiasm for the ensemble so far. For me, the jury's still out. But no matter where the director Timur Bekmambetov decides to go, I'll be curious enough to follow him in his path. Compared to American sci-fi/action offerings of late, this series is way more interesting and engaging. And add in the subtle purely Russian details provided, it's a fascinating view into the world experienced by people we hardly know ... and for that alone, these films are worth watching.