Night Watch, the Russian-made cinema sensation that played to packed houses in its mother country, has at last reached American shores, to the relief of horror and sci-fi fans who decided not to head the way of the bootleg. So how does this eagerly awaited movie stack up? Well, as convoluted as it seems at first, Night Watch/Nochnoi Dozor proves to be fairly easy to understand. Unfortunately, it doesn't provide much of a reason to care.
Our story begins centuries ago, when the forces of Light and Dark, comprised of beings known as "Others" (supernatural creatures the likes of vampires, witches, and shape-shifters), first became locked in an intense battle to the death. Thankfully, a truce was struck, rendering these forces completely equal to one another. Now, there are two factions dedicated to ensuring that the balance is kept intact: the Night Watch (Light Others who keep an eye on the Dark) and the Day Watch (Dark Others who watch over the Light). Lately, however, signs of a prophecy, fortelling the arrival of a Great Other who will choose between joining the forces of good or evil and, therefore, shatter the balance, have begun springing up in modern-day Moscow.
Caught in the middle of all this is Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), a psychic and officer for the Night Watch. He's charged with tracking down a Dark Other who's attempting to coax a young boy named Yegor (Dmitri Martynov) over to the side of evil. This sets off a chain of events that send Anton and the members of the Night Watch on a quest to save Yegor from the clutches of evil and to find a way to stop a "vortex of damnation" from turning Moscow into something resembling Chernobyl times a bazillion.
Night Watch is the first in a planned trilogy of sci-fi epics (the second, Day Watch, has already been filmed, and a third is moving quickly through the works). For me, watching Night Watch felt like the equivalent of going through three movies in two hours, the experience leaving me simultaneously entertained by the visuals and exhausted from the director's ADD style of storytelling. The film sets some fairly lofty goals for itself by centering the story around the ultimate confrontation between good and evil (whoever thought the Apocalypse would stem from the land of vodka and Yakov Smirnov?). Then, like an overly-ambitious waiter, it loads its tray with too many ideas, concepts, and freaky sights to dish out carefully, and the movie falls victim to its own over-ambitiousness. Simply put, Night Watch gives itself a lot of stuff to show off -- but there's not enough time to show it all or enough skill to pull everything off well. It says something about a film's priorities when a blasted vortex of damnation (which, personally speaking, more movies these days could use) is a subplot.
To be fair, Night Watch does a decent job of wrapping the viewer up in its mythology. Through all manner of special and visual effects, armor-clad armies do battle, humans change into fierce animals, and Others move stealthily through an area known as "the Gloom," causing the film to drip from so many back stories and supernatural elements like grease from a slice of pizza. Luckily, Night Watch emerges as a much classier production than that sounds. It boasts a great dark atmosphere and evokes a hyperactive sense of dread. The film is definitely a better-looking and more creative alternative to so-so slashers and flavorless ghost stories foisted upon audiences lately. Still, although Night Watch is never boring in terms of what we see, the feeling viewers are left with is a combination of burn-out and overall mild boredom. Because the movie cuts too many corners, breezes through so many subplots and abandons so many characters in favor of throwing something that looks cool onto the screen, one's investment in the main story starts to dwindle.
Night Watch holds up brilliantly for an hour, weaving a tapestry of darkness, the supernatural, and a good dose of sheer insanity. After that, things start to unravel, and by the time the end credits arrived, I found this movie to be a a Gothic-style horror epic that's too big for its own britches.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R" for strong violence, disturbing images and language.)