Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Night Watch

2004, 114 minutes, Rated R. Starring Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin. 
Fox Searchlight. 4 stars.


Vampire movies. Let’s face it, if there’s a filmic subgenre that has been done to death and beyond and needs no further additions, it’s the realm of bloodsuckers, eh? I mean, look at the now-empty (ahem) veins we’ve seen it done in: silent mysterious monochrome (“Nosferatu”); lesbian softcore (“Andy Warhol’s Dracula”), blaxploitation (“Blacula”); gritty social realist psychological thriller (“Martin”), high school satire (“Once Bitten”), camp coming-of-age effort (“Fright Night”); roadkill movie (“Near Dark”); gothic melodrama (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”); hell, even utterly bizarre (“Deafula”, the world’s first – and only - vamp flick signed for the deaf!). And I could, of course, name a thousand other variations on the immortal nightcrawler bloodgulper theme. You may think that this type of movie should have a stake driven through its flickering celluloid heart, its head cut off and garlic stuck in its mouth, but that would be before you saw “Night Watch.”
      Coming at us straight out of Russia and based on a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, this interesting, entertaining bat-man tale broke all box office records upon its release two years ago and was the all-time #1 movie in that country for a while. The first chapter of a proposed trilogy (whose second installment came out last year), “Night Watch” presents us with an epic tale of (what else) good versus evil. In the Middle Ages these two eternally warring factions, as represented by ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ ‘Others’ (have a guess which are good and which are bad) are having a gory go at each other on a bridge until, sickened by the wholesale slaughter of his troops in battle, the Light commander calls a Truce with the Dark one. They decide that forevermore the Light Others will patrol the doings of the Dark ones, and vice versa. The Light Others control the day and also make sure that the Dark Others, who become vampires, don’t go around at night breaking the Truce and committing evil acts
      Fast-forward several hundred years to present-day Moscow. Anton, a lovestruck man whose girlfriend has left him, tries to resort to black magic conducted by a witch to get her back and kill her unborn child, which isn’t his. At the scene of this would-be supernatural crime (and the magic-assisted miscarriage scene is a pretty grim one) a group of Light Others suddenly show up and arrest the witch for violating the Truce, and ascertain that Anton is an Other. Living amongst humanity are Others of both Light and Dark persuasion, seers and witches and prophets like Anton (“Just what we need, another fucking asshole with visions of the future,” intones one of the Light Others cynically), extraordinary people, and all must choose whether to go to the Dark or Light side.

      Anton chooses the latter and becomes a sort of Other cop, tracking down vampires who are killing people without being licensed to do so, using unsuspecting normal people as bait in a kind of entrapment scenario to arrest violators. That’s right, Dark bloodsuckers are granted a license to spill hemoglobin. Why exactly they’d be granted a license to do this I have no idea, but just go with it and we’ll be fine. Our world-weary protagonist’s stings lead him into meeting a kid who may just help set off the Apocalypse and he only has a certain amount of time to save the kid before the world melts down. So he gives it his best shot. And various chaotic shit ensues.

this Big Red flavored Vape is fucking epic!

      Now. First off. The plot for this film is not all that original. It borrows heavily from the whole outdated Book of Revelations end-of-the-world scenario that deluded Christians have misread into the final chapter of the Bible, but it’s serviceably sensible. It’s a compelling enough film, and what really sets it apart from the also-rans is the fact that it is simply visually stunning. Cinematographer Sergei Trofimov’s visuals are utterly incredible, and this really was an eye-opener for me personally as to what they can do film-wise in Russia in the 21st century. I still tend to think of Russia as a grim, grey land of stagnation and decay and Red Square soldier marches and vodka-drinking denizens (though there is a fair bit of vodka guzzling in this film – they have a stereotype to live down to, after all) waiting in queues for, well, anything. “Night Watch” certainly stomped this lack-of-Russian-culture-fed preconception (though I admit to a certain morbid curiosity in seeing the 60s décor in the apartments in the film and the old phone in a nuclear power plant, etc). But they have the net in Russia! Who’da thunk it!


      This movie certainly rivals anything the West can do visually, and contained so many neat, original touches it really made it a joy to watch; for example, the subtitles. They were done in a really cool fashion I personally never would have even thought about. People obscure them when they walk into them, they’re printed in MUCH BIGGER LETTERS when people are shouting in odd places on the screen, they are done in red and dissolve into cloudy water-dissolved puffs of blood when the vampires are calling on somebody…it’s a really, really neat thing, something I had never seen done before, and instead of being annoyed at static subtitles I actually found myself enjoying looking at them and the way they were presented. One thing I confess to finding funny was the fact that the subtitles were very Americanized – weird to see a 12-year-old Russki kid saying stuff like “My bad” like an American. But that’s obviously because “Night Watch” has been picked up for release in America. Indeed, Fox are apparently going to make an Americanized version of the film. It’ll probably star some bullethead musclebound homunculus like Vin Diesel and lose all its rustic olde-worlde charm that way, but hey, what can I say? It certainly won’t be any better looking than the original anyway.

SHHHH! Let me gently subdue you into a coma with my beef jerky breath

      There are so many other cool wee things I could talk about in this film. There’s a scene with a villain playing a videogame that prefigures, literally and figuratively, an end scene. Anton has a flashlight that…ah, see for yourself. There’s some gorgeous monochrome animation about a woman who is cursed and after that her gaze kills. Things camera-shake and fade in and out in trippy acid visuals and blow up and there’s a humorous scene where a kid is watching “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and learning vampire-killing techniques from it (not as bad or cutesy as it sounds). The Light Others can shapeshift and turn into tigers or bears or whatnot. But you’ll really have to see it yourself to see what I mean. They mess around with the vampire mythology in interesting enough ways that you don’t simply feel you’re watching a retread of some other crap fangflasher flickershow. See this film. You definitely won’t regret it. You’ll learn visually about contemporary Russia and see vodka downed and a woman changing from an owl into a human. What the hell more do you want or need, a written invitation? Get on it. And I’ll see you in line for the sequels. Guaranteed.


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