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In Russia, Night Watches You! by FullAuto Written on 27th April 2006

Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov.
Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Galina Tyunina, Dmitry Martynov, Mariya Poroshina.
Released by: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Release date: 24th April.
Running time: 109 mins.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0.
Languages: English, Russian. English subtitles.

Night Watch is, quite simply, about the battle between Light and Dark. No, no, don't leave, sit down, honestly. Give it a chance, eh? It is the first in a trilogy of films based on the novels by Sergei Lukyanenko (possibly the most Russian name ever). The powers of Light and Dark are made up of Others, who have a wide variety of abilities. Vampires, witches, shape-shifters, the supernatural au naturel. The story begins with an ancient conflict which threatens to consume the two evenly matched forces. Geser, Lord of Light, bottles it and thus the Truce is struck, and an uneasy peace develops. Enforcing the détente (yes, that is a word, I checked, so there) are the Night Watch and the Day Watch. Goodies keeping an eye on baddies and vice versa, respectively.

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If you want Nutella in Russia, you have to run like the fucking wind.
However, it's not as simple as that. Though the situation has been a Cold-War-type one for a while, there is an ancient prophecy (don't even fucking start, okay? There's always an ancient prophecy) concerning the coming of a Great Other, one so powerful as to permanently unbalance the conflict, and perhaps even end it. But an Other cannot be compelled to join a side. They have to choose, of their own free will.

The main character is Anton (Khabensky, apparently very famous in Russia, not that us corrupt Westerners would know), a seer. Obviously, knowledge of the future in such a turbulent time is primo, and he attempts to act on it as best he can. However, he's about as tough as a glass hammer, so Geser partners him up with Olga (Tyunina), an owl. No, I'm not winding you up. Things get more complicated as a cursed girl enters the mix, and the Night Watch struggle to stop the Dark and the Day Watch (excellently represented by a tracksuit-wearing chav and one of those odd Eastern European pop stars).

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"I love you, Olga, you beautiful owl. Always have. Always will."
The story is not particularly complex. Its simplicity is it's strength, and it doesn't bother with any bullshit explanations that don't make any sense. There's no psychobabble or physics behind it, it's a fantasy film and it's wholeheartedly fantastic. Good versus evil, however morally simplistic it may be, will always make a cracking story when skilfully done. There is some moral ambiguity, with the Night Watch using humans to entrap Dark Others, and Anton's friendship with a vampire of the Dark, but nothing that would give the characters much in the way of angst.

I don't know how they got the film looking so good on only four million of those morally decadent Yankee dollars. There's plenty of CGI, most of it good quality, and some nice use of practical effects too. Only a small amount of the CGI is unnecessary, and most of it is quite inventive. I was truly amazed at some of the unusual uses. There's nothing on a massive scale, just an irrepressible sense of the fantastic. A truck flipping, a head dissolving to show blood vessels, a rivet falling from an aeroplane to a cup and in particular, the Gloom. The Gloom is a parallel dimension in which Others can travel for a limited amount of time, allowing them to walk through doors, become invisible and generally kick some arse. Stay in it too long and eyes begin to leave blood-red trails in the darkness, flesh turns to dust, shit happens and all that good stuff.

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Anton had, literally, brought the wrong bird home.
Bekmambetov directs well, using effects to maximum, er, effect and imbuing action scenes with a frantic energy. He uses stop/start music, shaky camerawork, quick cuts and slow motion, all to the good. In fact, the only problem is the bloke seems to have ADD. Often when he gets a really great shot or frames something just right, he cuts away quickly, making you wish he had held on that visual just a few seconds longer, that he had just seen that move through to it's conclusion, or linked that hit with its consequence. Top stuff apart from that, though. He also avoids exploiting Moscow as a location, too, which I think is a nice touch. Just work on that attention span, Timur.

I'm in two minds about the music. On the one hand, it's slightly overused. Some scenes would have been served better without it. It's all pretty formulaic stuff really, but as long as it's simpatico with the visuals, it remedies a multitude of sins. It does what's expected, sometimes a little more, and no less. More hit than miss. The other audio is good, with the exception of the dubbing, which for some fucking reason is in Russian-accented English. Why? We know the film is Russian. It's like all those WWII films, where the actors playing the Germans speak English with a German accent. For the love of God, why? It doesn't make any sense! Stop doing it!

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"Someone help me get the seal off these Pringles! Fuck!"
The acting is good. Nothing over the top, nothing stupid, in fact if anything it's a little too serious. There are some small laughs to be had; intentional ones at that, but the actors are a bit humourless. There are enough bizarre happenings to justify a little more humour without detracting from the overall solemnity. Perhaps it's there, but doesn't translate very well. Khabensky plays the lead in a way I don't think I've ever seen before. He doesn't seem to have much in the way of charisma or confidence, or a sense of humour either. Nevertheless, he acts his socks off, a very unique protagonist. Admittedly, I've only seen three Russian films (counting this one) so my experience of Russian acting is limited. I'll shut the fuck up now.

The film's major weak point comes from being the first of a trilogy. It's quite clear that there will be more character development, more story development, more of the next film. It even makes the rather good ending seem anticlimactic, because it's obvious that this isn't really any type of conclusion, it's just another development. Night Watch is just laying the foundation for the sequels to build on, and as such is difficult to judge fairly on its own. If it were a stand-alone film, it would be severely lacking, but thankfully that isn't the case. There's plenty of potential to develop, I'm just disappointed they didn't make the film a little more self-contained. Relying upon sequels to tie up loose ends and even conclude subplots seems a bit lazy to me, but it may well have been an unavoidable consequence of the source material.

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"It's fun to stay at the-"
The 2-disc set is nice, posh metal case and everything. The case is a fucker, though. One of those bastards that won't let go of the discs until you're not just tilting them, you're bending them, gritting your teeth and wincing in preparation for the crack of snapping DVD. Christ, the 21st fucking century and we can't even make a decent DVD case. Genius, boys. Step into my office, because you're all fucking fired. Get out.

Each disc has a version of the film (though both versions are the International Cut, thirty minutes shorter than the original Russian cut, fuck you very much, Fox Searchlight). Disc 1 has options for English or Russian language and English or Russian subtitles (though the only English subs that work are the HoH ones). Disc 2 has special animated English subtitles. These are probably the best subtitles I have ever seen, with words in different colours, sizes and various effects for added emphasis. Great stuff. I wish as much thought went into all subtitles. There's also a commentary in English by the director, which is a brave move considering he's Russian, though there are subtitles provided if you can't decipher his accent. It's always nice to listen to the director talk about their film, as long as they're not a boring cunt. Bekmambetov is not a boring cunt, just in case you were wondering. A nice bonus is a text commentary by Lukyanenko, which provides some nice background and fills in some of the holes left by the adaptation.

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"What do you mean, 'pregnant'?"
Lastly on Disc 1 are three episodes of the Flash graphic novel, Broken Saints. Sadly, one of them is just a five-minute promo, so that's a pointless waste of my time. Cheers. If it's so fucking good, why not let me see some of it? The other two episodes are, by the way, just the right length to annoy the living piss out of me, instead of arousing my interest in the series. Well done.

On Disc 2, there are seven deleted scenes with optional commentary by Bekmambetov (the more I say it, the ruder it sounds), a Making Of, a Day Watch preview, two short features on the characters, story, subtitles and themes, and two galleries, one of posters, one of a comic book. None of it is revolutionary, some of it is filler, but most of it is actually above par for DVD extras (we've all come across dire shite masquerading as extras before, I feel your pain brethren).

A good flick, and a good start to the trilogy. Counting down to Day Watch, some time next year...


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