As a passenger plane flies over Moscow, a bird is sucked into the turbine. The engine flames up and rattles. A screw falls from the engine mount, plummets through the air and lands on the steel grating of an building's air duct. There, crows peck at it until it wedges through the grate, tumbles through the vents, into a woman's apartment and—plop!—into her coffee.
This inventive and well-shot scene from Russian action thriller Night Watch is impressive and visually stunning. But I don't know why it's in the movie. Is it yet another indicator that this cursed woman is having a really bad day? Does it show the effect of seemingly random events? Is it just a unique scene transition? Or is it there merely because it's cool?
A consistent lack of clarity is the biggest thing working against the imaginative, gritty and frantic Night Watch. Based on the popular Russian book trilogy by Sergey Lukyanenko, this first installment explains the unseen existence of Others, an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers, who are divided into two sides: the Light Others and the Dark Others. The two sides (comprised of Others like witches, vampires, shape-shifters, seers, etc.) have been at war for eons. However, the open warring between the sides ended a thousand years ago when each side's leaders, the Light General Gesser and Dark General Zavulon, created a treaty that gave the night to the Dark forces and the day to the Light forces. They also agreed that no Other can be forced to join a side; he or she must choose a side.
That much of the plot is clear. Other side plots, prophecies and specifics are a bit harder to grasp. For instance, there's something called "the gloom" in Night Watch. Apparently this is an important concept that Lukyanenko's books describe in great detail. But from the movie, I can only tell you: 1) It's another dimension that Others enter to go invisible. 2) It requires blood sacrifices. 3). It can kill. That's all I know. The movie also rattles on a lot about prophecies, cursed virgins, and vortexes. But basically the deal is this: The ancient unseen war is still raging today, and a Chosen One is on his way. His choice to go Light or Dark will tip the scales in the balance of power.
Because the film does not invest much time developing Lukyanenko's concepts—and because the lead character, a Light Other named Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), is about as personable as a wet rag for the first hour—the story often feels more like a sterile parade of events than a captivating tale. In many ways, the movie feels like the complicated first Matrix movie—with all the exposition scenes taken out.
Despite this flaw, Night Watch found box-office smashing popularity in Russia when it released there in 2004. (The second film, Day Watch, has just released in Russia and is even more popular. It releases here later this year.) The films' successes there may owe a great deal to homegrown excitement. And no doubt, the films found a large audience because many Russian viewers already knew the story and didn't need the exposition. But Night Watch does have its merits as an intriguing (if not original) story told with artistic and stylized vision. While often too frenetic, closely shot and MTV cut-happy, the movie has a fascinating tone and imaginative visuals. There are a handful of truly inspiring and vivid scenes that make this feel like Blade crossed with an art house flick. It's fun to see a foreign freshness applied to tired Hollywood genres like action/sci-fi films. And though some of that style gets in the way of story, the film does have interesting perspectives on spiritual matters.