Night Watch

Night Watch (2004)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin, Mariya Poroshina
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Extended Ending with Commentary, Sneak Peeks, Trailers

Part one of a planned trilogy, record-breaking Russian box office sensation "Night Watch" finally makes its DVD debut in the United States. A full-throttle, action packed fantasy film, "Night Watch" delivers an exhilarating ride with an emphasis on style and little in the way of storytelling consistency.

Our story begins centuries ago as two armies march across a bridge. The armies are comprised of humans with abilities beyond ordinary men (witches, sorcerers, shape-shifters and vampires) who refer to themselves as "Others." On one side of the bridge are the Soldiers of Light and on the other, the Soldiers of Darkness. A great battle ensues, with the armies equally matched. Knowing this will get both sides nowhere, The Lord of the Light, Gesser, freezes time and forges a truce with Zavulon, General of the Dark. They create a set of rules pertaining to their kind, stating that no one can be forced into being good or evil without choosing freely, that the Soldiers of Light are to be called "Night Watch" and will have to make sure the Soldiers of Darkness (who would be called "Day Watch") obeyed the truce and vice versa, thus ensuring that balance would be instilled for years to come. However, as in most fantasy films of this ilk, there is a prophecy that foretells of an Other coming into the world that will be more powerful than all and will have to choose between light and dark, forever disrupting this balance.

Flash forward to 1992 as a meekly, scorned man named Anton employs the services of a witch in order to make his ex-girlfriend (who has run off with another man who has supposedly impregnated her) fall back in love with him. For this to work, Anton has to take on the sin of destroying the unborn child (the witch, through her psychic mumbo-jumbo, will cause his ex to miscarry the baby). Giving the go-ahead, Anton soon has second thoughts and struggles to get the witch to stop her spell. Suddenly, the Night Watch appears and arrests the woman and Anton quickly discovers he has the power to see into the future. Twelve years later, Anton has harnessed his Other qualities and sets out to find a young boy named Yegor, who inadvertently caused Anton to kill a vampire in self defense, thus disrupting the truce between the two factions. Compounding this problem is a cursed woman that Anton encounters on a subway, who opens a vortex of damnation around her. Lord Gesser relates a story about the "Virgin of Byzantium," a cursed woman who brought about the original forces of Darkness. The prophecy states that this virgin will appear again, heralding the final battle between good and evil and destroying the balance forever. As such, The Great Other will arise and, if this person takes the side of Light, good will triumph, but wise men say that Darkness will likely win out. If all of this sounds slightly ridiculous, it is. But the film moves along at such a breakneck pace that it is difficult to focus on the absurdities. "Night Watch" envelopes you into is highly-stylized world and forces you to go along for the ride.

A delirious mixture of "The Matrix" and "Blade," with sprinkles of "Star Wars" here and there, "Night Watch" cribs from so many different sources that one might cry copyright infringement if everything wasn't so inventively realized. Similar to Quentin Tarantino, Director Timur Bekmambetov inhales genres like candy and coughs up a completely fresh take on them, infusing these elements with his own slick sensibilities. Rules and boundaries are rewritten (how many times have you seen a vampire turn invisible, only appearing through the reflection of a mirror?), which generously introduces a wealth of surprises.

This isn't to say that the film is not without its flaws. While attempting to cover massive amounts of narrative ground, the exposition explodes into near incoherence. At times, the film comes off as a hyperactive child trying to show you something he's excited about but is having trouble communicating what he wants to say. As such, you're compelled by his enthusiasm, but you have no idea what he's getting at.

So, "Night Watch" quickly becomes an exercise of style over substance and all the metaphysical hokum that is thrown our way does nothing to deter this fact. The director attempts to leaven the theatrics with brief moments of contemplation, wringing out the few intimate dramatic possibilities for all they're worth. Unfortunately, the hyper-kinetic style damages the humanistic emotions and, instead of winning us over, these asides get lost in the shuffle. What we're left with are sharp changes in tone that threaten to derail the film. It doesn't help that the main plot points have already been examined in hundreds of other sci-fi/horror opuses in a more successful manner. Although the lackadaisical approach to the narrative is a little on the predictable side, "Night Watch" nonetheless overrides these weaknesses with small details that enrich the cumulative effect of the film, even if they don't always make sense. A plane of reality that humans can't see (referred to as "The Gloom"), hides agents of Night Watch, a small doll sprouts spider legs and crawls across the floor, an owl violently transforms into a young woman, a videogame foreshadows the final battle, a man extracts a sword made from his spinal column out of a hole in his back, a vampire conduit sees the throbbing veins inside of a young boy's head and an animated explanation detailing the origins of Others are just a few of the unique visions that "Night Watch" offers up. Although the story lacks originality and can be convoluted at times, there is enough visual flair and imaginative secondary ideas at play that one can't help but be intrigued by the subsequent installments (the sequel has already been released in its homeland).

Released under their Fox Searchlight banner, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents "Night Watch" in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, preserving the look of its theatrical exhibition. For a film this bipolar, shifting from bright scenes to dark, it is represented quite well. Black levels are rich and deep, adding nice depth to the images, while skin tones appear natural. There are no signs of edge enhancement and the print is free of specks and grain. Without a doubt, this is an exceptional looking transfer. Kudos to Fox for another fine job.

Since the DVD is a flipper-disc, the original Russian language version occupies one side and the English-dubbed version is on the other. We get an English and Russian 5.1 Dolby Surround track and Spanish and French Dolby Surround options. The mix is superlative, with all channels nicely utilized, especially during the intense action scenes. The soundtrack is aggressive and the mixture of the orchestral score and the pounding techno score is well integrated. There are no instances of hiss or distortion and dialogue is clean and clear. As for subtitles, there are English, Spanish and French options (which can also be used in Novelist Sergei Lukyanenko's written commentary). If you're not averse to reading subtitles, I highly recommend watching the original Russian language version. In an unprecedented innovation, the subtitles become part of the viewing experience as a character in their own right. Words change colors and dissolve into blood; they flicker in and out as characters straddle the line between consciousness and unconsciousness and even appear floating around the screen. Many times I found myself enthralled by the subtitles, which only enhanced the already unique visuals.

For Extras, "Night Watch" features a Commentary by Director Timur Bekmambetov. Overall, Bekmambetov is a thoroughly interesting man, even though his thoughts are frequently hampered by his limited English skills. He points out many subtle cultural cues that populate the film, which may be lost on Western audiences. He also adds backstory to certain sequences, furthering the understanding of the sometimes hard to follow narrative. Bekmambetov also touches on some of the significant changes that were made in adapting the film from the book. He wanted to make the story more dramatic and sentimental and contends that the story of the book wasn't unique, but the world that the story took place in was. Next is a subtitled Commentary by Novelist Sergei Lukyanenko and, like in the Director's Commentary, Lukyanenko fills in many of the narrative gaps. He goes into detail about the "rules" that Others need to abide by, which are never clearly explored in the film and delves deeper into the meanings behind various character relationships and motivations. Both these commentaries provide interesting information that paints a clearer picture of the "Night Watch" world and a better understanding of the film.

Another Special Feature is "The Roof," an Extended Ending with Optional Commentary by the Director. This confounding coda revolves around a character questioning his sanity and concludes with a gravity-defying feat that wouldn't seem out of place in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. While slightly humorous, it also happens to be overlong and drains the visceral power from the original ending.

"Night Watch Trilogy" is a brief featurette mainly covering the first two films, with some behind the scenes footage of the second chapter, "Day Watch." Director Bekmambetov talks about the differences between the two films, stating that "Night Watch" is darker and more aggressive while "Day Watch" is easier to understand and more sentimental. This runs a little over three minutes long.

Also included are Trailers for the "Broken Saints" DVD and "The Hills Have Eyes," as well as a "Thief TV Spot." Lastly, there is an "Inside Look" which is basically just a teaser trailer for "The Omen" remake.

For fans of science fiction and fantasy, "Night Watch" delivers a cornucopia of visual treats. Employing a unique, hyper-realistic style, director Bekmambetov proves himself to be a talent to keep an eye on. Although the visually stunning story lacks originality and is emotionally vacant, the small details display jolts of creativity which make it a worthwhile effort. Check out this exciting Russian import, you'll be pleasantly surprised.