I am annoyed by the condescending attitude most of the good reviews of Night Watch had. The writers were not, I felt, judging the film on its own terms but in light of it being made in backwards Russia. The whole thing had a quality of cheering loudly for the kid coming in second at the Special Olympics – it’s special just that he showed up to compete in the FX Heavy Fantasy Blockbuster event. Hooray for trying!
But beyond that I found Night Watch to have two modes: baffling and incoherent. The movie barely makes any sense, and again, I feel like reviewers were writing that off to a ‘cultural difference,’ as if Russian viewers don’t care what the hell happens in a movie (although to be fair, I have begun to take this view about certain international audiences in general. I think they may be getting terribly dubbed or poorly subtitled versions of already logically challenged Hollywood blockbusters, and have come to believe that flip surrealism is just part of moviemaking. This, asserts my colleague Daniel Robert Epstein, is the only thing that can explain much of Italian cinema from the 60s and 70s). It was pretty clear to me that the fact that Night Watch was so opposed to sense making came directly from the director, Timur Bekmambetov.
With those things in mind, I bring good news: the budget on Day Watch seems much higher than the first film, so production values and FX are of much better quality, and Bekmambetov seems to have taken a class on narrative, as most of the film actually makes some sort of rudimentary sense. A lot of this comes from much of the heavy lifting having been done in the first movie, set-up wise, but Bekmambetov is so traditional with some of his work here that I actually called a minor character’s major importance very early on because it fit into standard dumb movie convention, as opposed to the first film, where characters and plots wandered in and out loosey goosey. This is the first time I have ever been relieved by cheap telegraphing in a motion picture.
The sequel lies in its title – we’re still mostly involved with the Night Watch, the group of good Others who keep an eye on what the bad Others are up to. While that’s a little too bad it ends up not being a big deal because the real structure of the movie is a CIA vs KGB movie, with the bad Others and the good Others running cons and secret operations on one another, trying to manipulate events. It’s a hoot watching bad Other leader Zavulon feigning shock at an Other version of an international incident that he’s secretly set into motion. There are games within games being played; they’re being played to such an extent that I stopped believing in them, but by that point the film had caught me up in its momentum.
At the core of the film is Anton’s son, who at the end of the last movie decided to be a bad Other. Also important: The Chalk of Fate, which sounds like the kind of item I would be pretty bummed about getting in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (+2 to all saving throws!); in the film it allows you to write your own destiny, but only your own. It’s apparently trickier than it sounds.
Day Watch is flabby in the middle – there’s a whole bit with body swapping that’s so extraneous as to feel like it’s pasted in from another film – but Bekmambetov mostly keeps his story moving forward on the back of his immensely likable protagonist, played by Konstantin Khabensky. He was the best thing in Night Watch, and this time around he’s even better, mixing some self-deprecating humor in to deflate the ponderousness of his character’s edgy smoking and drinking habits.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about Day Watch is how it finally gives you a feeling of these two opposing groups as organizations, not just as eternal forces. I’m fascinated with the idea of how fantasy groups like these would operate in a real world, and the structures presented here feel very realistic (for what it’s worth). Halfway through I found myself wishing someone would make an American TV show out of this concept – there’s enough fun to be had in superimposing banal paperwork and bureaucracy with vampires and witches to keep a series going for a couple of seasons.
Day Watch works its way up to a massive apocalyptic finale, and then crumbles into one of the single worst endings I have ever seen in a movie in my life. If it wasn’t for the fact that this is supposed to be the second film in a trilogy I would have started wailing and gnashing my teeth in the theater; the ending is exactly that horrible and that big a cop out. Even worse, it involves terrible wigs.
After Night Watch I was hoping that Day Watch would grab the baton and do something interesting; now that it has I really can’t wait to see what happens with Dusk Watch, the third film in the trilogy – although I fear that it will be set in America with all new characters (especially in light of the ending of this film), as has been rumored. I really have come to like these two groups of crazy magical Muscovites, and I would love to see them return for a third and final outing.