Dir: Timur Bekmambetov.Russia. 2004. 114mins.
One of the mostimpressive things about Night Watch is the fact that such a stylish andtechnically polished fantasy movie - which can teach Hollywood a trick or twoabout squeezing a great look out of a tight budget - is it is 100% made inRussia. But, as some studio executives might say, if you can't beat 'em, buy'em: this cinematic adaptation of part one of Sergei Lukyanenko's trilogy ofnovels about an epic struggle between the forces of light and dark was scoopedup by Fox soon after its triumphant home release and will receive a widerelease for a Russian feature overseas (US: July 29, UK: June 3, among others)later this year.
Hopefully directorBekmambetov and author/co-scriptwriter Lukyanenko will be allowed to retainfull creative control over the project, up to and including the plannedEnglish-language third part as it is their combined vision that makes this suchan original addition to the low-fi sci-fi fantasy genre.
It hardly matters that thefilm - which enjoyed a special screening at Berlin - has its moments ofsmoke-and-mirrors hokum, or that the plot becomes increasingly Byzantinetowards the end (literally so, at one point). Night Watch has enoughchutzpah to overcome the occasional confusion over exactly what grades thevarious mediums and wizards occupy in the hierarchy of "Others", or what thebuzzing mosquito is supposed to represent, or how a single power-station workercan shut down a whole city.
After Hero et al, thedistribution of foreign-language blockbusters is becoming far less of a hurdlethan it used to be, and Night Watch has the oomph to justify theconfidence Fox are investing in it, accompanied by a vigorous promotionalcampaign.
The premise is hastily dealtwith in the opening scenes. "As long as humans have existed", one of thosegravel-voiced fantasy narrators tells us, "there have been Others among us -witches, sorcerers, shape-shifters". Rather like the junior wizards in HarryPotter, as soon as they are inducted into the society of their peers, theseOthers have to decide what side they want to be on - though in this case thereare only two, the Light and the Dark.
An uneasy truce reignsbetween the two sides (there are echoes of the Cold War here), which isenforced by allowing each side to monitor the activities of the other andreport any infringements - so the forces of light form the Night Watch, whichpolices the nocturnal activities of their enemies, who return the favour byday.
By far the most enjoyableaspect of the film, apart from its sheer imaginative scope, is the way itgrounds its parallel fantasy universe in the everyday life of post-CommunistRussia. The Night Watch has its HQ in the run-down offices of the Moscowlighting utility company; Others and ordinary humans alike live in scuzzycity-centre tenements or high-rise blocks in the outskirts; the Night Watchpatrol drives around in a battered armoured truck which, though jet-propelled,still has to deal with the Moscow traffic. There are vampires in this netherworld, but some are upstanding citizens who make do with pigs' blood, and allneed a licence to operate.
The look of Night Watch- aided and abetted by Sergei Trofimov's slick cinematography and the decadentproduction design of Valeri Viktoroc - owes something to Terry Gilliam butthere are also echoes of Delicatessen in the film's wide-anglehyper-realism (and its enjoyable butchers-shop interlude).
The soundtrack is aninventive, peppy mix of classical underlining classical chords and Soviet diasporahip-hop and post-industrial bands like Drum Ecstasy. The everyday background ofthe story allows special effects to be used sparingly, but those that exist areup to Hollywood standards, and a Russian forte, line animation, is used to goodeffect in a fairy-tale narrative sequence.
Certain key sequences of theRussian original had animated lines of dialogue appearing in the screen; thesehave been reproduced in a Los Angeles post-production lab for theEnglish-language version.
Prod cos: Channel One Russia, Bazelevs Production, Tabbak
Int'l sales: Gemini
Int'l dist: 20th Century Fox
Exec prods: Alexei Kublistki,Varvara Avdyushko
Prods: Anatoly Maximov,Konstantin Ernst
Scr: Timur Bekmambetov, SergeiLukyanenko, from the story by Lukyanenko
Cine: Sergei Trofimov
Prod des: Valeri Viktorov
Ed: Dmitri Kselyov
Music: Yuri Poteyenko
Main cast: Konstantin Khabensky,Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin, Maria Poroshina, Galina Tyunina, VictorVerzhbitsky, Dima Martynov