It's always fun to see how traditional Hollywood genres are adopted overseas. From spaghetti westerns to J-horror, exported genres often return to our shores looking very different from the way they left. Take the new Russian horror fantasy Night Watch, which is finally finding its way into American cinemas almost two years after it broke box-office records in its home country. Based on a popular series of novels, this first entry in a planned trilogy references everyone from Peter Jackson to the Wachowskis while also creating its own distinct mythology. It's as if director Timur Bekmambetov put movies like The Matrix, Blade, The Lord of the Rings and Ghostbusters in a blender, added a healthy dose of Russian folklore and then pressed puree. The resulting concoction will likely baffle anyone who isn't already a fantasy/horror aficionado, but those viewers who enjoy one of these genres will get a kick out of the universe Bekmambetov has created here.
Be warned: There are a lot of details and characters to keep track of in Night Watch, so if you let your mind wander during the early scenes you risk spending the rest of the movie in a permanent state of confusion. The story begins 1,000 years ago, when the forces of Light squared off against the forces of Darkness in the battle to end all battles. As the fight raged on, it became clear that the opponents were too evenly matched for one to triumph and a truce was declared. To ensure that both sides upheld the terms of this treaty, two police forces were created. The Day Watch keeps tabs on the forces of Light, while the Night Watch watches over the collection of vampires, sorcerers and witches that make up the forces of Darkness. Most humans don't notice these supernatural goings-on happening around them, but every now and then one of them develops extraordinary abilities that allow them to see what lies behind the "real" world. At this point, they become an Other and have to decide if they are going to join the side of Darkness or Light.
Everyone keeping up so far? Okay, now we jump ahead to 1992, when an unassuming man named Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) visits an elderly witch who has promised to help him win back his adulterous wife. Before she can complete her spell, three members of the Night Watch burst into the flat and place her under arrest for violating the truce. In the confusion that follows, Anton unexpectedly learns that he has the ability to see the future and thus transforms from a human into an Other. Flash-forward another 12 years and he's joined the Night Watch as a tracker. His current mission is to follow a young boy who is being targeted by two vampires. (In this universe, vamps are supposed to obtain licenses from the Night Watch before they bite anybody.) What initially seems like a fairly straightforward case of overeager bloodsuckers getting out of line turns out to be part of a larger plan to restart the war between Light and Darkness. Now Anton and his allies have to pull out all the stops to keep the truce intact. Oh, and did I mention that there's a prophecy involved?
An advertising director turned feature filmmaker, Bekmambetov instinctively knows how to create slick, crowd-pleasing images. It's no wonder that this film apparently inspired a new fashion craze in Moscow; much like The Matrix, Night Watch could be viewed as an extended advertisement for leather clothing and sleek sunglasses. The movie has also been edited like a commercial, with lots of quick cuts and fun, if rather extraneous, camera effects. When the Night Watch officers first fire up their rusty vehicle, for example, Bekmambetov throws in a CGI-assisted tracking shot of the car's engine as it roars to life. Although that budget was reportedly only $4 million, the film looks as if it were made for considerably more than that, thanks in large part to eye-catching shots like these.
Where Night Watch stumbles in relation to its influences is in its storytelling. The film does take place in a fully realized universe; the only problem is, the details of this world aren't always established in the most coherent way. Horror/fantasy fans should have an easier time following the story, as they'll recognize the genre tropes that Bekmambetov draws on. But the steady stream of talk about "Light" and "Darkness" and "Others" may drive general audiences out of the theatre. Unfortunately, the film's limited appeal means that we may never see the sequel Day Watch, which opened in Russia on January 1. (We can probably also forget about ever seeing the third film, which was supposed to have been an English-language prequel.) Hopefully, the studio will at least give that movie a token limited release so the small cult of Night Watch fans will be able to see how the story ends.