Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) (2005)

Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Mariya Poroshina, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Dimitry Martynov

Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) is the phenomenally successful Russian fantasy horror film that's had Eastern Europeans queuing round the Bloc since its release in 2004. A curious hybrid of Hollywood blockbuster and foreign arthouse flick, it's definitely one of the most different and yet at the same time familiar films I've seen in a long time.

Konstantin Khabensky as Anton in Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

The trailers did their best to conceal the fact that the Night Watch is in Russian (although who cares, when you've got the best and most imaginatively designed subtitles in the world, ever) instead hyping it as a ground breaking, blockbusting horror sci-fi thriller - Buffy beats the Matrix to reach the Kingdom of Heaven - and certainly there are enough Hollywood elements to justify this move.

Like Constantine, the film tells of the epic struggle between light and dark, good and evil, a cosmic battle that has torn the world apart since the dawn of time. Right now, the opposing forces (led by two unlikely looking baldy-heided dudes who live in schemey high rise flats. as you would, if you were the Lord of Good or Evil) have called a truce. Instead of angels and demons to hold their powers in check, the Night Watch (good) and Day Watch (evil) patrol the streets of Moscow, seeking those who would break the conditions of the truce by practising black magic, being a vampire or, presumably, conversely, being overly nice.

In the midst of all this supernatural chaos we have our average, ordinary, everyday dude, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), who, like Neo in The Matrix, suddenly discovers that what he perceives as reality is really only the half of it. And like Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, it offers us a snapshot of an anti-hero in the making, Anton's son Yegor, a special child or chosen one, destined to save or destroy the world.

Night Watch has been hailed as a masterpiece in many quarters: 'the first Russian blockbuster' the critics have declared. Yet I can't help thinking there's something a bit patronising about this adulation: like, hey guys, those cabbage eating, headscarf wearing, queuing, boozing Rusky types have got themselves some CGI. Their blockbusters are, like, nearly as good as ours.

Certainly the cinematography is totally 21st century - all choppy-cutty fast forwards followed by weird slo-mo interspersed with that gory, forensic CGI that's used all the time in CSI and House - but the special effects, while brilliantly imaginative, are not executed all that well (especially when compared to the likes of War of the Worlds or the Lord of the Rings trilogy) making the film at times resemble a cut price computer game. Throw in some slightly gruesome battles (although - hooray - no bloody Hero-style Eastern martial arts) and score it all with the obligatory piledriving metal soundtrack and what you've got is a fairly standard Hollywood sci-fi epic.

And yet despite the American influence, the film is somehow very Russian (and not just because everything looks grubby and unhygienic and an awful lot of vodka is consumed) and it's this dark atmosphere of otherness that makes the film different and special. Unlike Constantine or The Matrix, Night Watch is not slick and cool and fast paced. In fact it's confusing and fractured and at times a bit slow. None of the characters are outstandingly good looking or glamorous or sexy, and their wardrobes are decidedly charity shop. And, whilst even in Hollywood, the forces of good aren't generally portrayed as peerless knights in shining armour (think X-Men 2 or Batman, if nothing else), in Night Watch the good guys seem particularly flawed, compromised, angry and cynical.

The heroes are tired and just a bit depressed, whilst the villains are ever so slightly bored, as if they know that by the end of the trilogy they're bound to be defeated, yet are doomed by destiny to get on with acting mean. As every fan of the Dark Side knows, from Milton's Satan to Darth Vader, without evil there can be no good, ergo evil must exist. But it doesn't mean the bad guys have to like it.

Chosen One Yegor escapes a nasty vampire in Night Watch

Not that this point is hammered home - refusing to bore us with the kind of irritating pseudo philosophical claptrap that clutters up Hollywood movies when they try to be clever (again, stand up guilty Constantine and The Matrix Reloaded), the storyline hints at intellectual depths without feeling the need to spoon feed us. This is the country that brought us Dostoevsky, after all, not Jerry Springer.

In summary? Night Watch is a must-watch, especially if gothic gloom, snarling vampires and apocalyptic storylines as big as the Bible (almost) rock your boat. It starts brilliantly, it meanders off the point a bit and then it gets good again, ending on an ominous Star Wars-esque knife edge that leads us nicely into Night Watch 2 and 3. As anyone who's waded through a Russian novel can tell you, they don't do things by halves these guys. Oh. those Russians.

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