Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) (review)

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Too Much Wow

Style is not a problem for this crazy Russian horror fantasy, with its funny-ghastly imagery of shapeshifting creatures and plastic dolls sprouting bug legs, and its gritty urban vampires riding the crowded Moscow subway, and its jam-packed-with-apocalyptic-crap end-of-the-world showdown. Hell, it even has some of the most creative and beautiful subtitles, like, ever. Oh yes, Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) has style to spare… and that, actually, is the problem.
In old Soviet Russia, you know, horror movie watches you. If you could even get your hands on decadent American horror movie, that is. So perhaps director Timur Bekmambetov, working from a script he adapted with Laeta Kalogridis from a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, did a lot of video and DVD catching up over the last 15 years since old Soviet Russia went away and was so excited by everything he saw that he couldn’t wait to throw it all in a blender and make an undead-walk-the-earth milkshake (a jokey reference in one scene to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show tells you precisely where he’s coming from). Not that he can’t handle a stylistic milkshake — his command of the approximately 1,543,962 cool-as-shit elements of Night Watch is beyond question. But he’s thrown so many ingredients into his concoction that they battle one another for attention and lose all meaning… or fail to make any impact beyond that initial Wow before we’ve moved on to something else.

Like this: Our hero is Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), who’s kind of a seer and kind of a vampire in modern-day Moscow. He discovered his power to sense other undead creatures accidentally when he tried to get an old witch woman to cast a spell on the girlfriend who’d just abandoned him (which in itself could be more than enough story for an entire film, and here is merely prologue). Now, a dozen years later, he’s part of the Night Watch, a patrol of supernatural cops (yes, you’ll be reminded of Ghostbusters) who police the truce between the powers of Light and the powers of Dark, who centuries earlier learned that the two sides are too equally matched to allow one to prevail over the other. But the little squabbles that pop up from time to time need to mediated… at least until that inevitable final showdown, which will be so destructive it will take the rest of the world with it.

You would not be wrong to suspect that this final showdown is about to begin.

Anyway, Anton is riding the subway, because it’s a cool location to shoot a scene if you want your urban horror fantasy thriller to have street cred and be real and grungy and dirty and packed with clueless humanity. He’s tracking a young boy who’s important to the Light — or is it the Dark? I kept feeling the need to ask various characters, Wait, are you a good witch or a bad witch? — and he comes up behind the kid and all of a sudden he can see the veins throbbing inside the kid’s head: bone and brain and skin and everything melts away, and Anton is staring hungrily at the kid’s blood. Well, I say “staring hungrily” now, because in retrospect I see that Bekmambetov is probably trying to create a sense of what is driving Anton, a visual impression of what is allowing Anton to track the kid, a thirst for his blood (of course, as a member of the Light, he does not feed on humans). But that’s not really there in the scene itself, because we never really understand Anton and know next to nothing about the kid. At the moment you’re watching it, there’s nothing there at all except the coolness factor of seeing a headful of throbbing veins and nothing else. Which is, you know, cool and all. But it’s not enough to keep the attention of a smart moviegoer.

Bekmambetov’s got a lot of neat-o ideas. There’s the fairy-tale-ooky owl woman who transforms — in a scene that is genuinely creepy — from a bird to a bird of a girl covered in feathers that slough off… but then she has nothing to do and no reason to be present at all except to transform for our creepified pleasure. There’s the one Dark character who’s a pop music star, which is funny — of course the Britney Spearses of the world are evil undead monsters — but there should be more to it than that, and there isn’t.

There should be a lot more to all of it than that, but there isn’t.

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