With the breakout success of his American debut 'Wanted', now seems like a good time to revisit the films that first brought Russian director Timur Bekmambetov to international attention. Prior to his bursting onto the scene, the Russian film industry had been stagnating for decades, stuck in a rut of producing low-budget B-movies and art films that rarely saw export outside the country. Even within its borders, local productions simply couldn't compete with the American and European imports flooding Russian theater screens. All that changed in 2004 with the release of 'Nochnoi Dozor' ('Night Watch'), a big-budget (for Russia) rollercoaster action movie that became a staggering box office blockbuster and a cultural phenomenon. The movie even made waves in international circles. Fox Searchlight bought up the American distribution rights with plans to promote it as a foreign equivalent to 'The Matrix', the next mind-blowing reinvention of the sci-fi action genre. The film didn't quite reach that goal. It played only in limited theatrical release here in 2006 and was quickly shuffled off to video. However, it has since achieved some measure of cult success on these shores.
Based on a series of novels by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko, 'Night Watch' blends elements of numerous Western genres from medieval fantasy to science fiction, horror, and urban action thriller, adapted with Americanized flashy production values and extensive visual effects, and fashions something distinctly Russian in sensibility from them. The film tells the story of Anton Gorodetsky, a poor Muscovite schlub who makes the mistake of appealing to a witch for help when his pregnant wife leaves him. He arranges for the witch to place a curse that will bring his wife back to him and, resultantly, also kill the unborn child. Before she can finish the deed, a group of mysterious invisible strangers bursts into the apartment to stop the old woman. Thus, Anton is first introduced to the Others, a culture of supernatural beings sharing our world, some good and some evil.
Spanning the range of witches, sorcerers, shape-shifters, vampires and more, the Others are divided into two camps: Light and Dark. They live hidden among humans, but can also slip into a mosquito-infested alternate dimension called The Gloom that exists just beneath the surface of our reality. Centuries ago, war between the two forces was finally brought to a truce. The peace is enforced on the one side by the Night Watch, a sort of supernatural police squad of Light Others who keep the Dark in check, and on the other side by the Day Watch, Dark Others who similarly keep tabs on the Light. Any violation of the truce, either too much good or too much evil being introduced to the world, will bring about war and apocalypse.
The film creates a fairly fascinating mythology, but is most notable for Bekmambetov's frenetic visual style. The director conjures some borderline-insane hallucinatory imagery shot from weird camera angles, cut to a rapid-fire editing rhythm, and played to a hard-driving rock score. Imagine 'The Matrix' made by crystal meth fiends. Unfortunately, narrative coherency is not one of Bekmambetov's strengths. Large patches of the convoluted story make almost no sense at all, and the director isn't particularly interested in clearing it up. Crazy things happen all around the characters with no explanation. Before the audience can begin to comprehend what's just happened in any given scene, the movie has already moved on to something else. Honestly, I have no clue what happened in the film's climax. Something about a tornado and a plane crash and a Vortex of Damnation and buildings exploding and a massive power blackout and a swarm of crows and a vampire threatening a 12 year-old boy all happening at once. This is Attention Deficit Disorder cinema, and frankly it's wearying to watch. No matter how frenzied and intense the action, the movie grows tedious if you can't tell what's happening or what anything means.
'Night Watch' is clearly the work of a director with a distinctive voice, a unique vision for his material, and plenty of innate talent. It's also completely undisciplined and kind of dumb.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Night Watch' comes to Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, released simultaneously with its sequel 'Day Watch'. The disc has no obnoxious promos or trailers before the main menu. I wish I could say the same for the second movie.
The package art describes the film as an "Unrated" cut. What that really means is that it's the 114-minute international version of the movie that has the opening narration dubbed into English and runs about ten minutes shorter than the original Russian theatrical cut.
The disc has only traditional text subtitles running at the bottom of the frame. Disappointingly, it does not have the theatrical subtitles that were designed in a comic book style and interacted with the imagery on screen.
Unlike the sequel, 'Night Watch' was photographed in a "flat" 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is very sharp and detailed, with a nice sense of three dimensional depth. Thankfully, I spotted no Edge Enhancement or Digital Noise Reduction artifacts. The photography is grainy at times, but not overly so. The grain looks reasonably natural, perhaps a little noisy here or there, but digitized well overall.
For a movie called 'Night Watch', the image is surprisingly bright. The movie is perhaps overlit, but it also looks like the transfer's brightness has been cranked up a little much. Colors (such as the old witch's red dress) are at times oversaturated and bloom. These two problems have the effect of making the movie look even cheaper than it really was.
The original Russian-language soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format. While Master Audio may be a lossless compression format, the film's general sound quality is no better than a typical Dolby Digital or DTS track. This is likely due to inherent limitations in the movie's production.
The soundtrack is certainly loud. Really loud. Of course, loudness should not be confused for quality. The mix has a lot of bass, but low end usage is shallow and muddy without extension to the deepest registers. Surround activity is frequent, especially all the mosquito buzzing, but also echo-y. The track is a little shrill and lacking in crispness. It has an overall dull color and tonality, without much auditory depth.
Fox has not only carried over all of the bonus features from the Region 1 DVD, they've even thrown in some from the Region 2 DVD as well. I just wish they amounted to more of substance.
From the Region 1 DVD:
From the Region 2 DVD:
'Night Watch' showcases a unique visual sensibility and I can understand why the film has developed a cult following. Personally, I found it too much of a mess and just didn't love it. The Blu-ray has decent (not great) picture and sound and some bland bonus features. It's at least worth a rental.