Film and TV

Day Watch

Night Watch, you may recall, told of an ancient feud waged between the forces of Light and Dark. In the interest of maintaining a fragile detente, they organized themselves, as Russian super-combatants are wont to do, into complex bureaucracies, with the Night Watch heroes monitoring the vampiric shenanigans of the Day Watch set, and vice versa. Inevitably, shit happened, for the most part localized in a secret dimension of the universe known as the Gloom. Predominantly an arena for computer-generated bust-ass, the Gloom was also the favored hiding place of the local mosquito population, which explains why you can never nail the tricky little bloodsuckers.

The hero of Night Watch, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), found himself tangled in the fates of two über-Watchfolk called the Great Others. Svetlana (Maria Poroshina) emerged to support the Night Watch, while Anton's son Egor (Dima Martynov) matured into a terrible ally of the Day Watch. Everyone ran around willy-nilly, things exploded, etc.

Based on a trilogy of Russian bestsellers (Day Watch is here, Dusk Watch on its way), the film was a huge hit in Russia; tricked out with digitally enhanced Extreme Subtitles, it went on to make a decent chunk of change in the States as an art-house/fan-boy crossover. The novelty of a supernatural blockbuster rendered in a Russian idiom lent Night Watch extra zest, but apocalyptic vampire spectaculars are, after all, a universal language, and director Timur Bekmambetov brought plenty of post-Matrix aplomb to the proceedings.

Day Watch dawns with a whiplash refresher course in the backstory before diving into an inspired set piece concerning the provenance of the Chalk of Fate. This hilariously low-fi magic implement will be sought after by Anton to thwart the diabolical schemes of Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky), a nefariously nouveau-riche Day Watcher. Hell-bent on abolishing the truce, Zavulon masterminds a standoff between the Great Others with the help of the Sorceress Olga (Galina Tunina), a vixen in cherry-red leather with a penchant for gunning her sports car across the facades of skyscrapers.

Rad, no? Actually, no. Strange to say in a season of mind-splitting mayhem, but not nearly enough shit gets blown up in Day Watch. Bekmambetov lovingly crafts a world you want to see morph, spin and shatter to bits, but he obliges only grudgingly. Perhaps he's too entranced by his creation. With help from art director Valery Victorov, maestro of densely sculpted shabby chic, and the superb, gem-toned intensities of cinematographer Sergei Trofimov, the film looks terrific: Imagine what Wong Kar-Wai might do with Blade 4. But the human touch is less than inspiring, and Bekmambetov's thrown a big, fat hug around the inconsequential psychodramas of his vague principals. He invests in their two-dimensional conflicts at the expense of three-dimensional marvel.

Day Watch may be most "Russian" in its heavy emphasis on interpersonal conflict, but its people are a bore. Anton's anguished responsibility over his son's fate is more synthetic than the special effects and feels considerably less lived-in than any given set. Khabensky, a popular Russian actor of limited range and sickly appearance, is actively unappealing, his distinct unpleasantness a laudable change of pace from the puppet heroism of the standard American alpha male but even less involving. And Poroshina's Svetlana barely registers a pulse. The most compelling thing about this ostensible Great One is her magnificently tacky fashion sense.

The worst thing Bekmambetov has picked up from his American models is the tendency of mega-sequels to aggrandize material grown enervated, to compensate for thinness by spreading out. His story sporadically jerks to life, then settles back into the maudlin, distracted or merely vacant. For an hour or so, there's rhythmic excitement in these spasmodic rhythms, the weird rush of something unpredictably unhinged. By Day's wearying end, not so much.

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Nathan Lee
Contact: Nathan Lee