What does a Russian blockbuster look like? It turns out, a lot like an American blockbuster…mainly “The Matrix,” with plenty of MTV2 mixed in and a sporadic sprinkling of Eisenstein. Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch,” made for an outrageous (in Russia) $4 million, may have been an unexpected and record-breaking hit in its home country, but the dark urban fantasy is more interesting as a cultural artifact than as a techno-heavy, flashy, forgettable bit of entertainment.
As is de rigeur these days, “Night Watch” (which is the first installment of a trilogy) rests on a convoluted, po-faced mythology there are Others living among us, vampires, sorcerers, witches, seers, shapeshifters, who’ve chosen to be on the side of Light or Dark. They exist in an uneasy truce in which the Light side patrols the Dark’s activities (the titular Night Watch), and vice versa. There’s an A-plot involving some ÃƒÂ¼berOther who will tip the balance between the two forces, and a B-plot that concerns your run-of-the-mill impending apocalypse. Trenchcoats are worn. There are occasions of soulful, sci-fi angst.
It’s impossible to convey Bekmambetov’s fearless slathering-on of visual effects in words. No one walks across a room when they can stutter over in a series of digitally enhanced jump cuts. It’s at turns impressive and headache-inducing for every extraordinary image (a utility truck somersaults over a pedestrian and lands seamlessly back on the street; a man shatters like ceramic) there are at least a dozen that are excessive or silly (in a climactic fight, one character pulls a sword out of his spine, while another wields a fluorescent bulb, which illuminates like a lightsaber). But it’s the film’s night-shrouded Moscow that’s its most impressive visual accoutrement the action leaps through dingy streets, crowded subways and dozens of apparently windowless Soviet-era apartment buildings, an urban hell out of a Wachowski brothers wet dream.
A lingering sense of old ways crumbling gives “Night Watch” an odd soulfulness it might not deserve though it’s probably not an accident that the somewhat bureaucratic Light Others operate out of a grimy municipal building (the “City Light Company”) while the Dark Others are all new money, gleaming cars and designer track suits. In the end, the differences between Dark and Light aren’t heated or personal after all they’re just ideological.
“Night Watch” opens in New York, L.A. and San Francisco on February 17. For more on the film, see the official site.