The first significant film to emerge from the bleak heartland of post-Communist Russia, Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch” is an epic without a hero. Beneath a ragged narrative which purports to chronicle a literal battle between good and evil, good is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the ruins of concrete Communist tenements seem to loom around a people waiting for the final apocalypse to come and end it all. Amateurish, awkward and underfunded, the filmmaking itself seems dispirited, overcome by the pervading tone of hopelessness. In this mire, half-formed characters move in and out of a narrative fog; vampires may be the overt bad guys, but when the supposed good guys are manipulative and self-interested, who can say? Adding to the confusion, Bekmambetov’s direction feels unsure — the movie jerks around in his grasp like a live wire. And, although several glimmers of brilliance appear here and there, they almost seem unintentional.
Modeled after the original “Star Wars,” down to its similarly small budget, “Night Watch” is far less polished and eloquent. But deep in its soul something important about Russia, and perhaps even humanity, is waiting to be expressed. The promise of this mysterious hidden meaning, along with the intriguing, warped visuals, manage to carry “Night Watch” away from what could be fatal boredom. Where exactly Bekmambetov ultimately wanted his film to go, however, never materializes.
The convoluted plot inflates the scant material found in an episode of “Buffy” to “Lord of the Rings” proportions. The forces of Light are in a never-ending battle with the forces of Darkness until a truce is parlayed between the two. Special super-humans on both sides, called Others, must enforce the truce. The Light Others are called the Night Watch, the Dark Others … well you get the picture. Into this uneasy cease-fire steps Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), who discovers that he is an Other after a visit to a tenement witch. Choosing the side of Light (hard choice), Anton is indoctrinated in the intricacies of vampire-hunting.
Ten years later, on a routine Night Watch shift, Anton finds his long-lost son Yeger (Dmitri Martynov) in the clutches of a bloodsucker. After killing the vampire, and violating the truce, Anton learns that the Night Watch has been granting phony licenses to Dark Others in order to catch them violating the truce. But Anton has no time to dwell on corrupt business practices, more pressing plot developments have occurred: namely, a catacylsmic vortex over Moscow. Anton, with the help of his owl sidekick, must try to bring his son to the side of Light while, at the same time, stopping the apocalypse. Not easy goals for a man whose only weapon is a gem-encrusted flashlight.
To be fair, “Night Watch” is not to be taken literally but instead operates as an allegorical pastiche, enacting the Greek drama of “Star Wars” in the surrealist realm of Russian folklore. Anton plays the archetypal fallen man, he is the film’s Darth Vader. But his son Yeger is no Luke — Bekmambetov reimagines the final father-son struggle, and Yeger chooses darkness.
The pathos of their relationship might have made for a great film if the production values could advance beyond “home-movie.” Bekmambetov’s erratic camera work is a recipe for frustration. The screen buzzes around like a fly, cutting from shot to shot, each one impossible to process before it vanishes a split second later. It becomes clear during the indecipherably choppy fight scenes that this is a style of necessity driven by budgetary concerns, rather than art.
“Night Watch” slows to a nice pace in the rare moments when it focuses on interpersonal relationships rather that inter-vampiric sparring. A particularly good scene occurs between Anton and Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina), a “Ghostbusters” style ingenue nurse, beautiful behind her saucer-sized glasses, who has opened the doorway to chaos. In the darkness of her apartment, which is wallpapered with edenic forest scenes, she confesses the evil instinct lurking within her. In that chilling moment of innocence lost, Bekmambetov touches a cord struck by Conrad in “Heart of Darkness.” But even at its best, “Night Watch” is nothing new, and, ultimately, it can’t escape from its own messy, low-budget silliness.