Night Watch: Special Edition (RU - DVD R5)
Gabe keeps the balance and reveiws the first part of the Russian action trilogy...
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“...And so it will be, until a man emerges who is meant to become the Great One. And, if he chooses the side of Light, then Light will win. But, those, to whom the truth has been revealed, say that he will choose Darkness. For it is easier to kill the Light within oneself, than to scatter the Darkness around... The prophecies are coming true.”
The war between the Darkness and the Light has long ago reached a stalemate. A truce has been reached, and each side is entrusted with keeping the balance. The Night Watch makes sure the Darkness doesn’t overstep its bounds, as the Day Watch does for the Light. This, the first film of a proposed trilogy, concerns the plight of a relatively new member of Moscow Night Watch, Anton Gorodetsky, whose otherworldly abilities were discovered in a previous intervention. Anton was attempting to murder his lover’s unborn child with a black magic curse.
Anton is sent out to rescue a young boy, who may or may not be the Great One of legend, from out of control members of the Darkness. Along the way he happens upon a cursed woman of Light, ultimately (and confusingly) creating another problem. The woman’s curse is causing the death of all those she comes in contact with, creating a rift in the balance. The cursed virgin reeks havoc, stretching the Night Watch forces thin, and leaves the Great One (or Great Other, as he’s sometimes referred to) vulnerable to the pull of the Darkness’.
Night Watch, or Ночной Дозор as it’s known in its native Russia, has been summed up by quite a few reviews as The Matrix meets The Lord of the Rings. After viewing it I can understand this consensus, but will say it is misleading. The story’s epic scope and affinity to slow motion, characters wearing sunglasses, and special effects is pretty much where the comparisons end. If I were to compare Night Watch to anything, it would be the Hellblazer comic line, which was made into a pretty good little action flick called Constantine earlier this year. John Constantine could easily have been a member of the Night Watch agency, which consists of outcast and regretful warriors, using their supernatural gifts and knowledge, not so much to help innocent people, but to maintain a precious balance of power.
I, of course, can’t deny that the “The One”, who is temped by “The Dark Side” isn’t at least a little derivative. The character’s age, and genuine vulnerability makes him a somewhat original character, but the Anakin and Neo affinities are still pretty thick. And there is one point in the film where Anton dons a fluorescent light as a sword, but I think that qualifies as “homage” rather than “rip-off”.
Unlike Neo, the Night Watch don’t exactly know kung-fu, and viewers expecting spectacular action set-pieces will most likely be disappointed. The few fight sequences are pretty out of this world, but not in the same uber-entertaining sense. Anton’s first real fight with the forces of darkness is much more suspenseful and brutal than anything seen in The Matrix, or the also comparable Blade series (at its base, this is kind of a good vampires fighting bad vampires story). The fights themselves are also a little over-edited, but unlike the otherwise wonderful Batman Begins, this sporadic chaos seems appropriate.
The biggest hurdle one must surmount when analyzing Night Watch is not the film's familiarity, as I had initially assumed, but its enigmatic complexity. There isn’t one, but two major plotlines overlapping each other, and both unravel very slowly. The cultural and language barriers don’t help, and I had a lot of trouble keeping track of characters mostly because I couldn’t remember their names. I went into the film knowing it was the first part of the trilogy, but what I didn’t know was that the plot that was to carry over was actually secondary to the main plot. Had I realized this right away, rather than spending the majority of the film trying to figure out how these plots were going to tie together, I may’ve had a more enjoyable experience.
In the end, the film’s dueling plots, one which arcs into the next film, the other that wraps up, make me wonder if it would’ve been more successful as a television series or comic book (I am to understand the films are based on a series of novels). It will take at least two viewings for me to absorb everything, which isn’t a bad thing, but nonetheless a bit frustrating. Some films can be revisited for meanings and subtext, others to understand the complexities of its plot. The best films will do both in equal parts. Again, I find the comparisons to The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and even my own to Blade misleading, because they only really apply on a surface level. If anything, I find Night Watch most analogous to Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. Like Donnie Darko, I found that I resented Night Watch for all its hype, but liked it more and more the longer I thought about it.
The surface level stuff is there too, interesting cinematography, solid special effects, lovely art design, and decent performances, but these are all things I could say about almost every average film I’ve ever seen. Though not entirely original at its base, Night Watch is intriguing because it isn’t just doing the same old thing. Ingenuity goes a long way with this reviewer. For instance, I’ve seen about a million movies with characters that could tell the future, but this is the first time I’ve seen a character “Google” the future. The mixing of the occult (curses, vampires, black magic) and technology is something left mostly untapped by mainstream cinema. Like the Steam-Punk and Splatter-Punk literary movements, this is a concoction that is so downright cool that I found myself wondering why it hadn’t been done to death yet. The average film would use this internet fortune telling as the main thrust of the plot, but Night Watch allows it to be simply one of many elements that make a more interesting whole.
This is the part of the review where I inform the curious that this is the only currently (legally) available version of the film in release right now, though an official UK release should be coming up in a few months. I follow that with the fact that it is anamorphically enhanced and that the subtitles are not burned in or anything, so they are crisp and readable.
And then comes the bad news...
Though the transfer is never awful, it's definitely never good either. Some of the film's style dictates that it have a gritty look, but something tells me this wasn't quite the look the filmmakers were looking for. The amount of grain is downright befuddling. Some of the grain is film based, as are most of the artefacts, and some of it is related to both low and high level noise. Details are constantly, though not distressingly fuzzy. The light and dark interplays are never quite satisfying, as though the overall transfer suffers from darkness, the black levels are never rich enough to consider them more than dark gray.
Like I said, this is currently the best version on the market, and a US DVD seems pretty far off. Readers with high quality sets may find the grain and noise distracting. For such a new and well-budgeted film, I really would've expected better of an official release.
Night Watch is presented in Russian Dolby Digital 5.1. The track is spacious, and directional effects brassy, but the dynamic range is lacking. The whole track sounds a bit muddled, and seems to have been recorded on a more quiet level than most DVDs. My system (which is getting up there in age) had to be cranked pretty loudly to get the desired effect, which unfortunately leads to a distorted hiss in all the channels. I'd blame this on the system, but it's not a problem I've had more than three or four times before, each time with lower grade DVDs. Essentially, this is a fine track that finds itself lacking the necessary "oomph".
When reviewing HK or Japanese DVDs I have the good fortune of friends that speak the languages, so I can usually navigate the menus successfully, with some assistance. I can also fumble my way through most Roman character languages (German, Italian, Spanish). Unfortunately, I don't know any one who speaks Russian, and I don't recognize the characters the language uses, so checking out the disc's special features proved difficult.
From what I can tell, this is a pretty bare set, including the usual DVD stand-bys, like TV spots, trailers, and cast and crew bios (in Russian, of course). Unlike most DVDs, Night Watch includes ads for products used in the film. Overall, not the most extensive set, but figuring the language barrier into the equation, I'd say English speakers won't really mind.
Like Casshern, which I reviewed earlier this year (along with two other site writers), the film is tactfully pleasing, but ultimately confusing enough to become frustrating. Unlike Casshern, Night Watch isn't overlong, and is intriguing enough to warrant second and third viewings. It also has the benefit of being the first part of a trilogy, which means it may just be the foundation for two better films. I, personally, am very much looking forward to Day Watch, despite my misgivings for its prequel.
You can purchase this title from Xploitedcinema.com.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 30th June 2004
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Russian Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: TV Spots, Trailers, Cast and Crew Bios
Easter Egg: No
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin
Genre: Action, Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 115 minutes
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