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DVD Review: Night Watch

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In the DVD commentary track for Night Watch, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov likens film editing to painting and composing music. Where the painter or musician has colors or notes, the filmmaker’s tools are scenes. “Editing is the movie,” Bekmambetov, a former commercial director, says.

Night Watch is a fascinating and visually extraordinary film of ideas. It artfully mines history, gothic literature, pop culture and the horror and fantasy genres to create a strikingly original mythology. It even tells a hell of a story in which the fate of the world hangs in the outcome. But, like Bekmambetov said, it’s all in the editing.

A film packing such strong visual information and complex concepts would be a chore to sit through if not for good editing. Bekmambetov and his crew pull it off, and teach Hollywood some new tricks. The filmmakers even artfully weave animated subtitles into the visual thread to help move the story along. They secure an energetic pace that’s never too busy or too lethargic. That’s tough to do when you’re making a crazy ass movie about conflicted mystical beings battling oppressed vampires in dank, modern day Moscow.

Russia’s first “blockbuster,” the first of a trilogy based on the novel by Sergey Lukyanenko, tells the story of Light and Dark “Others,” human-looking supernaturals living among us who are constantly in conflict with each other. The film starts out with a savagely charged medieval battle scene between the two forces. A truce is called, a pact is made and life continues. The Light forces create a police agency, called Night Watch, charged with keeping the evil Dark Others in check and the world balanced (a simple metaphor for our own conflicting impulses). The Dark Others, constantly burned by the tilted truce in favor of the Light, plot to take over by convincing a super powerful Other to join the dark side, thus tilting the scale in their favor.

Our anti-hero is the cynical Anton (Nochnoy Dozor), a Light Other with Dark tendencies. He’s friends with the Darks, who it seems are all vampires, and is used by Night Watch for his tracking and “seeing” abilities. We follow Anton through stunning action scenes and poetic down time, tracking down Darks who break the truce by feeding off humans and turning them into vampires.

It might seem like pretty simple good vs. evil type stuff, but it’s more complicated. Even though they have good intentions, the Lights burden the Darks with shifty laws and clumsily forged ordinances. Much like humans, the Others are not perfect and their troubles are almost always self created. Adding to the complexity is something called “the gloom,” a shadow realm where Others can exist but only temporarily, since it feeds on their life. Bekmambetov cleverly illustrates this by populating the gloom with blood sucking mosquitos.

Night Watch sometimes buckles under the weight of its own complex mythology and some watching might feel frustrated or confused by a few scenes. Any confusion won’t last though, since the film is good about doling out compelling expository scenes.

Night Watch is a rarity, a visionary film rooted in traditional genres that breaks new ground.

The sequel to the 2004 film, Day Watch, is slated for a 2007 U.S. release. It’s rumored that the third film in the trilogy will be filmed in the U.S. and feature English speaking actors. But remember, that’s only a rumor.

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