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March 3, 2006

Night Watch is a violent, visceral ride from Russia

Night Watch, a new film from previously unknown director Timur Bekmambetov, has been making waves since its July 2004 release revitalized the Russian film industry. Considering that the Russian film industry has consisted of very little since the fall of the Soviet Union—or perhaps since the death of Sergei Eisenstein—this may be less than incredible news. In its entire domestic run, Night Watch grossed a mere $16 million. That Return of the King made even less during its Russian run is more a comment on rampant piracy than on the particular success of this new nightmarish creation.

What is actually amazing is that Night Watch was produced on a shoe-string budget of $4 million. It is, without a doubt, the most stunning $4 million movie I have ever seen. The special effects are distinct and memorable, creating a much greater effect than King Kong’s drab $200 million computer animation. Each effect is alive, active, and flawlessly integrated into the action of the story. Gone are those bubbly creatures we’ve come to accept as scary. Everything here feels real and menacing, not piddling and weightless like the dinosaurs on Skull Island.

The visuals, by far the best element of Night Watch, are probably the reason that Bekmambetov is being hailed as the Russian Tarantino, Fincher, or Boyle. Again, the hype is too generous, but the potential is there. Bekmambetov may very well reach the level of those mind-bending auteurs in the near future: He has the sensibility of a great director. There are long stretches of Night Watch that are unbelievably, breathlessly intense. In one, a witch uses dark magic to perform a long-distance abortion on behalf of a betrayed boyfriend. She twists and turns her hands and we see the girlfriend, miles away, collapse and writhe. The scene feels violent and visceral, and yet not a drop of blood is shed. The effect is created by careful music selection and clever camerawork, not by the traditional blood-and-guts methodology that dominates the American horror genre. Wes Craven would do well to take some tips from Bekmambetov.

This is not to say that Night Watch is not a very, very violent movie. It is. It’s got shattering skulls, good old-fashioned spears, and even some surgery done by hand. But it understands that violence is not the only tool for holding attention. One of the best sequences is created with simple flipbook animation. Another relies on the energy of the crowd at a concert to build tension. A third follows a single screw as it falls from a doomed airplane’s engine into an equally doomed woman’s cup of coffee.

The problem is that such gripping moments are used in the service of a rather trifling storyline. The eternal struggle between the forces of light and dark looks and sounds captivating, but it feels distant and uninvolving. What, exactly, is our stake in this battle? The key to great fantasy movies is that they bring their audiences into another dimension but make it feel familiar. Despite its obvious parallels to Christian theology, Night Watch never draws us in as quickly as it obfuscates. The characters are difficult to relate to and their choices bear little resemblance to those we might make. It isn’t entirely clear what the underlying structure of all the madness is. On some level, it is inherently cool to watch a man use his own spine as a sword, but at the same time, two hours of such nonsense is a little alienating.

A great deal of effort was put into making Night Watch feel less like a foreign film. The subtitles dance around irreverently to emphasize emotion, and an opening voiceover has been re-dubbed in English. But this is a movie that works best in the foreign realm. It is always easier to believe that imaginary creatures exist somewhere else. The paper-thin character development, not the Russian setting, prevents this effort from achieving the greatness its effects so richly deserve. No one in this fantasy is much more than a hanger for special powers and abilities that prove useful in fights. I know that all the vampires, witches, and shape-shifters are not supposed to be precisely human, but sometimes they are not even anthropomorphic. Fans of The Matrix and Indiana Jones may feel right at home here, as those movies are enjoyed much more for their stunts than their statements on humanity. Still, Neo and Indy work as heroes because they represent larger, morally just causes that tie all of the action together. Night Watch has no clear preference for the forces of light over dark, nor does it have an interesting commentary on why the lines of morality are so blurred. This is either a popcorn movie that forgot to give us someone to root for or a philosophy movie that forgot about the philosophy.

The whole package demands attention for its sheer audacity and adrenaline. It is an experience, to be sure—a big, loud, incredible experience. But I’m not convinced I would have liked it any less if I had skipped the subtitles and just taken in the sights and sounds. To many, that is the only requirement of an effects-laden blockbuster. To others, Night Watch might feel draining and unsatisfying. To determine which you are, try watching the two-and-a-half minute condensed version online (www.foxsearchlight.com/nwnd). It is exactly the same as the feature, only shorter and ever-so-slightly faster.