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Night Watch

A Promising Yet Uneven First Chapter to Russian Fantasy/Horror Trilogy

Based on the first novel in Sergei Lukyanenko's fantasy/horror trilogy, Night Watch ("Nochnoy dozor") was adapted by Lukyanenko for the screen with co-screenwriter and director Timur Bekmambetov. On its release in Russia two years ago, Night Watch broke box office records, thus spurning a following that is eagerly awaiting the production of the second and third films in the series. Indeed Bekmambetov has already completed filming and released the second film, Day Watch, in Russia.

Bekmambetov and Lukyanenko give us not one but two prologues. In the first prologue, two medieval armies, one representing Light, the other Darkness, meet in bloody battle on a stone bridge. After much bloodletting and random dismemberment, the leaders of the two armies, Gesser (Vladimir Menshov) and Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky) call a truce. The truce gives each side complementary powers. The forces of Light police the forces of Darkness through the Night Watch and, in turn, the forces of Darkness police the forces of Light through the Day Watch.

Flash forward the better part of a millennium. Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) obtains the services of an old witch, Darya Schultz (Rimma Markova), to help him save his marriage. Darya warns Anton that his wife is carrying another man's child and offers to use black magic to help. Anton at first agrees, but then changes his mind. Luckily, the Night Watch storm in, saving Anton from the witch and the consequences of his actions. Post-scuffle, Anton learns that he is an "Other", a human endowed with supernatural abilities (he's a seer who gets brief glimpses of the future). The Night Watch recruits Anton to join them.

Flash forward again, this time twelve years. Anton, awakened from alcohol-induced slumber, is sent to track Yegor (Dmitri Martynov), a young boy telepathically called by something supernatural. Anton's intervention leads to a violent row with two vampires. They complain about the rules and claim that Yegor is fair game. Luckily, Anton's backup team intervenes again, saving Anton. Anton and his new partner, Olga (Galina Tyunina), are sent to protect Yegor at his mother's apartment. Meanwhile, a vortex focused on an apartment complex grows in strength. The vortex may or may not portend the apocalypse. We also learn that a "Great Other", choosing one side over another, will break the uneasy truce struck made hundreds of years ago (no guesses as to who the messiah or anti-messiah character is).

While Night Watch's genre trappings and borrowings of other films are evident in every frame (e.g., The Matrix, Blade, Underworld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even Blade Runner's rooftop scene gets one or two nods), Bekmambetov elevates Night Watch above other mediocre genre entries through style, style, and more style (the staged set pieces are impressive with one major exception, the rooftop finale). Bekmambetov shows off his visual talents best in a scene where Anton and Olga have to enter an interstitial negative space, the "Gloom", to find a scared Yegor. The scene ends with Anton and Yegor sprawled on the floor, lying in opposite directions (a visual portent, perhaps, of things to come). Bekmambetov's firm grasp of visual storytelling is one of Night Watch's strengths (the other being the flawed, ambiguous characters found on both sides of the supernatural divide).

As expected from the first entry in a trilogy, Night Watch leaves multiple questions and situations unresolved, but even as the first entry in a planned trilogy, Night Watch falters under the usual problems associated with book-to-screen adaptations, e.g., the need to compress or eliminate subplots and characters from the source novel. Oddly, expository information is often repeated, sometimes more than once, while other information (e.g., what supernatural powers Others actually have) remains murky. Characters introductions are also mishandled, making it difficult, if not impossible to care for them. To be fair, Bekmambetov probably assumed that Night Watch's audiences have read the original source novels or are otherwise already familiar with the trilogy.

One minor, if still troubling issue, is worth mentioning. In the second prologue, the witch informs Anton that killing the unborn child his wife is carrying is a mortal sin, a stain on his eternal soul. It's an odd piece of politics to slip into a lightweight, derivative, fantasy/horror series. That aside, Bekmambetov and Lukyanenko have crafted a promising beginning to their trilogy. With so many loose story threads and unresolved conflicts on which to ponder and speculate, there's little question that the second and third films in the trilogy will be eagerly anticipated stateside (as they have been in Russia and Europe).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars