From Russia with love.
Publisher: 20th Century Fox
Sun, 2 April 2006
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Back in the USSR, you don't know how lucky you are, boy. Yep, you've got to love Russia. Just think of all the cool shit they've given us over the years. During the cold war era, a whole bunch of evil Russian wrestlers like Ivan Koloff and Nicolai Volkoff were going around being all... you know, evil and Russian. Of a similar mould was Ivan Drago, Rocky Balboa's dreaded opponent in Rocky IV; in what is still the most hilariously unrealistic boxing match I've seen in a movie.
Another boxing related Russian brute was the mighty Soda Popinski, found in the classic NES game Mike Tyson's Punchout (incidentally, in the character's original form - in the arcade version of Punchout - he went by the more offensive name of Vodka Drunkenski). Zangief is a well known Russian game icon too, being one of the least chosen Street Fighter characters to play as. And let's not forget that pair of sexy fake lesbian teen girls that made up pop sensation tAtu. There's no two ways about it; Russia gets the thumbs up from old Sammy. Now that I have Night Watch on DVD, I can add the movie to the list of things I dig that have come from that part of this planet of ours.
Known in Russia (at least, so they tell me) as Nochoi Dozor, Night Watch (not to be confused with an older flick called Nightwatch, which starred Ewan McGregor, pre Obi Wan) is set in contemporary Russia. Directed by Timur Bekambetov (you can read a Q&A with Timur by clicking here), it was adapted from a book. I haven't read it.
This is the first part of what's intended to be a trilogy of films. It is a tricky one to classify as far as genre, but it is basically a fantasy action flick, mixed with big doses of horror. There's quite a bit of back-story to it all. The following is a bit of the plot description from the official Night Watch website. Hopefully this will help bring everyone sufficiently up to speed:
For as long as humanity has existed, there have been "Others" among us; Witches, Vampires and Shape-Shifters who are soldiers in the eternal war between Light and Dark. Light Others protect mankind from Dark Others, who plague and torture humans.
Over 1000-years ago a truce was struck between Gesser, Lord of the Light, and Zavulon, General of Darkness. They agreed that no one could be forced to good or evil, people must choose freely for themselves. To uphold this truce, each side established underground forces; the soldiers of the Light would be called Night Watch, making sure Dark Others obeyed the truce. And the soldiers of Darkness would be called Day Watch, to do the same.
Ancient prophecy foretells that one day the Great One will arrive who can end the threat of an apocalyptic battle between Light and Dark Others. That day has come, and the Great One, once he or she is identified, must choose whether to destroy the light within or battle the surrounding darkness. This choice will reveal mankind's destiny.
Did you follow all that? Of course you did, because you're a smart cookie. I know that, due to the fact you're brainy enough to be visiting Buttonhole and reading this right now.
|The old "chasing a jar of blood down a tunnel" routine. |
Anyway, on with the review. Like many of Buttonhole's readers, and the majority of our staff, I tend to really enjoy stories about vampires, supernatural creatures and things of that ilk. Basically because they are just cool and fun. Night Watch has plenty of that appeal going for it. It also has a fantastic sense of style, which is of utmost importance for a film of this kind. The style of a fantasy movie is often more integral than even the plot, since they all tend to be of a fairly similar nature anyway. It is likely to come down to getting the feel of the setting dead on that'll maintain the viewer's interest, more than the story and characters. There are exceptions of course (shows like Buffy and Angel being some good examples) which really build and explore their characters heavily, but I'm generalising here.
Night Watch has a decent enough storyline and makes some effort to put its own spin on things. It does a reasonable job of establishing its own mythology or "world". It delves (though not all that deeply) into a few fairly interesting themes; the most resonant with myself being living up to ones' duties and how an individual's actions can wind up affecting those around them. Essentially though, the majority of it is pretty familiar fare. The style of the movie's presentation is definitely what works most in its favour. Visually, this is a very slick and striking piece of work. It was made with a relatively low budget too, which makes it all the more impressive.
Here's something I've been noticing more and more lately: For some time now, videogames have been moving closer to movies in the way they are presented. It is like just making a fun game isn't enough anymore, they seem to feel oblidged to to incorporate all these elaborate cut-scenes and that kind of thing. So it amuses me somewhat that, these days, some movies are beginning to resemble videogames in return. It seems to me that the makers of Night Watch played a bunch of action games, read several graphic novels and created the film with those influences at full force in their minds. The action sequences are extremely "game-like" (they even show one of the characters playing out some of the movie's events in videogame form, to really drive the connection home). And many of the visual choices - like the use of dynamic subtitles to stress or enhance key moments and the way certain shots are framed in panels - are straight out of a comic book. I'm not knocking that (this time) though; for the kind of tale they are telling those choices are very fitting. A film's visual style doesn't have to be original, as long as it works and here it certainly does.
The score of the movie (with original music by Pleymo and Yuri Potevenko, whoever the hell they might be) is highly reminiscent of that of a videogame as well. The music is used well to back the action. It sounds a bit cheesy at times and you couldn't accuse it of being overly subtle, but it remains perfectly in context.
Another aspect of Night Watch that reminds me of comics is the fact that its characters are neutral, to a certain extent. The bad guys are not entirely bad and the good guys are not entirely good. For the most part, nobody is 100% wrong or right, with their decisions often stemming more from circumstances beyond their control and a sense of duty. Comics have been doing this for years, with even some of the more well known characters. Look at the Punisher, Hulk, Wolverine and Batman; all heroes who are not exactly clean cut, or nice guys to hang around with. Likewise, there are numerous comic villains that really don't believe what they are doing is wrong and so aren't entirely "evil" in the strictest sense of the word. While a good number of action films have featured characters with those elements to them, by and large they tend to be more intent on establishing a truly heroic protagonist and an unsympathetic monster of a foe for him to overcome. Night Watch leans far more to the former kinds of characters than the latter.
I consider that to be mainly a good thing, but it can cause a bit of trouble if you're not careful with it. With sci-fi, action and fantasy flicks the viewer tends to go in looking mainly for a bit of escapism. Forget realistic depictions of flawed human nature; just give us a bastard villain and then have a cool hero come along to give him the arse kicking he so richly deserves. When the supposed hero of the story is not really acting due to his admirable nature, instead just doing what he has to do (and he also happens to be a bit of a doofus), it can be hard to really get behind him and wish for his success.
I found the story's main character, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), to be just a touch too unlikable at times. However, his less than stellar personality does lead to the set up of some potentially interesting things towards the end of the movie. Things that will probably unfold fully in the sequels. I am now keen to see the next installment to see where it all goes, so I suppose Anton did manage to win me over eventually, in a fashion.
|Here's Anton, looking like a cross between Neo from the Matrix and Eminem in 8 Mile. |
Thankfully, some of the other characters in the movie had quite a bit more charm about them, so that made up for Anton's lameness somewhat. Unfortunately though, you never really get the sense that you "know" any of these folks. Perhaps that was an intentional thing, to keep the viewer at something of a distance, in order to enhance the strangeness of the film's world. Yeah, let's be generous and say that's what they were aiming for.
Make no mistake, after viewing this movie I am now definitely interested in watching the sequels. But I also feel a degree of trepidation about them. By Night Watch's third act the story started to get overly convoluted. So I'm worried that they might try to get too smart for their own good. Clearly the Matrix was another big influence and I'd hate to see the Night Watch sequels turn out as needlessly tangled and confusing as the two follow ups to that flick did. Hopefully they'll avoid that though and pace themselves better. At the very least, it was a fun ride up until this point. This first part of the Night Watch trilogy has a finish that is overdone and jarringly abrupt. However, before reaching that stage, it is a thoroughly entertaining show.
I'd certainly recommend Night Watch wholeheartedly to all those who find the premise and setting attractive. As I said, it looks fantastic and that allowed it to be plenty of fun to watch for me. If you want to take the time to really get stuck into the characters and back-story, well they've tried to allow for that, but it really isn't as deep or clever as it seems to think it is. Personally though, I reckon it is just a very cool action movie. With vampires. Sometimes that's enough for me and this is indeed one of those times.
*Want to score yourself a free copy of the Night Watch DVD? Well, if you do (and you should) now's your chance! There are five copies to be won. The first 5 people to email me with the correct answers to the following three questions will be awarded a Night Watch DVD. And the questions are:
1. What was the Soda Popinski character's name in the arcade version of Punchout?
2. Who directed Night Watch?
3. What is the name of the main character in Night Watch?
There you go, take a crack at answering those stupidly easy questions and you might just get the DVD cost free!*
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Solid acting. An interesting setting. Superb presentation. Sweet action sequences. A high level of "coolness". Night Watch is well above average for a movie of its kind. Bring on the sequels!