Even translated from its native Russian, the book “Night Watch” by Sergey Lukyaneko is a fascinating read concerning mortality in an epic backdrop of modern fantasy. But when it’s adapted to the big screen, even by a visionary Russian filmmaker, the results are different . . . for both better and worst.
In the Middle Ages, the mythical forces of Light and Darkness decide mutually assured destruction isn’t working for them, and call a truce. They then appoint their agents to keep watch of the other side to make sure they are keeping the terms of the Truce, with the Night Watch keeping an eye on the Dark and the Day Watch keeping an eye on the Light. But both sides secretly use the Truce as a means to proxy for power behind the scenes.
In modern Moscow, Night Watch agents come upon the young Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy) making a deal with a witch to get back at his ex, who is unbeknown to him, pregnant with his child. The agents disrupt the ceremony and make a deal with Anton: work for the Night Watch and they’ll forget he was caught in a potentially Faustian pact. Years later, Anton is a full-fledged Night Watch agent hunting a rogue vampire and finding himself knee-deep in a far bigger plot including a powerful young woman and mysterious child from his past.
Timur Bekmambetov of “Wanted” fame directs this Russian horror-fantasy adaptation. If you’ve seen “Wanted”, you know Bekmambetov’s style is explosively kinetic. With that in mind, consider “Night Watch” to be Bekmambetov with the gloves off, after a lot of Red Bull mixed vodka. Don’t believe me? The first half hour involves medieval hacking and slashing, a were-tiger, and a spider-legged doll that would give the Puppet Master nightmares.
For the most part, “Night Watch” is an enjoyable, if wildly unpredictable, ride. Headlined by Khabenskly, the cast is filled with plenty of interesting and likable characters. The special effects are explosively spectacular, often times rivaling anything you’d see in a US blockbuster in terms of scope and imagination. Unfortunately, it’s ironically when the movie inadvertently compares itself to Hollywood that the Night Watch slightly unravels.
As I mentioned before, one of the best parts of the book is the moral ambiguity it presents. The Day Watch can be, on their best day, touchingly human, and the Night Watch, at their worst, can be deceptively manipulative. But that moral ambiguity is sorely lacking in the film. Combined this with the film’s over-the-top special effects, and you have a Russian flick which manages to out-Hollywood Hollywood.
Overall, “Night Watch” is a creative – if somewhat complicated – flick for anyone looking for a rare original twist on modern fantasy. There is a sequel – “Day Watch” – but it gets far too convoluted for my taste. For an awesome glimpse of magic and morality, “Night Watch” brings new life to the streets of Moscow.
Own it on DVD for $9.58 shipped at JR.com.