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Movie Review: Night Watch – A Russian Urban Fantasy

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This city fantasy starts with a legend. There was a virgin in ancient Byzantium who became cursed. Wherever she went, bad things were sure to follow. The curse opened a vortex of damnation around her and the first forces of darkness were born into the world. Forces of light rose to fight them. Geser (Vladimir Menshov) is the boss of the forces of light and Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitski) is the general of the dark forces.

The battle that raged was bloody and violent and the forces were so equally matched that a truce had to be negotiated unless everyone was to perish. The truce basically says no one gets to pick a fight and each person has to choose for themselves if they go to the light or dark side. And that is what it all comes down to, really — choice.

The protagonist Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy) goes to a woman who he believes to be a witch of sorts in order to get his philandering wife back. She tells him that his wife is with another man, carrying this other man’s child, and offers to make the child go away and the wife come back, if Anton is willing to take the sin on his own conscience. Anton doesn’t really seem to understand how serious this is, so he says yes. The problem is that the woman, Darya (Rimma Markova), is the real deal. She is an Other, a Dark Other, even, and she actually can make all this come to pass.

At the exact moment the curse is about to take effect the Night Watch show up, traveling in the Gloom, the other dimension, where they are supposed to be invisible to regular humans. The problem is that Anton can see them. They restrain the witch and once they realize that Anton can see them they take him in.

Next time we meet Anton he is drinking blood and hunting vampires who have broken their particular set of laws. Vampires need licenses to be allowed to bite humans and Anton, who is a seer, is hunting one that has gotten in over his head.

The victim being stalked by this particular vampire is a young boy called Yegor (Dmitriy Martynov). Anton follows the boy and they wind up in the metro where Anton catches sight of a woman who sets off one of his visions, premonitions, whatever you might like to call them. The woman is Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) who will come to play a major role later in this tale. Anton manages to help Yegor escape and the male vampire gets killed by the Night Watch, and somewhere in all this mess the problems now begin to converge.

Anton has killed one of the Dark Others, breaking the peace. The young boy Yegor, could see more than he should have been able to, thus making him an Other. Svetlana is definitely also something more than meets the eye. The forces of light and dark are doing battle, but for the moment it is subtle, a chess game, a series of events that may, or may not, have been engineered, in part, by Geser and Zavulon.

I am not going to give away the entire action here, that would spoil the fun, but it’s safe to say that it is pretty complicated and intricate and there is a reason for everything, from the first confusing scene in Darya’s kitchen, to the very last battle in the Gloom on a rooftop where Zavulon makes a sword out of his backbone. Yes, you read that right.

At the same time this movie is stylish and brutal, the violence is visceral and colourful and not the least bit shy, and there is no doubt that once you get killed here, you die. Horribly, and sometimes in bits. We are in modern-day Moscow for most of the action and there are things that make me snigger, like the blatant product placement and the dry, Russian humour.

The effects are really organic and once you accept the basic premise that there is more to this reality than the mundane you don’t really have to work at suspending your disbelief. Some things are done old school, like the car chases where the Others drive about eight times as fast as is humanly possible and that may be the only time that I winced a little, since it’s done by speeding up the camera. On the other hand, Olga-the-Owl's (Galina Tyunina) transformation from beast to woman is done old school too, but that works really, really well and is sufficiently physical and a bit disgusting for it to feel real.

Underscoring all this fantasy and Otherness there is actually a good storyline that focuses on the characters and their very human choices and desires. Anton is trying to make up for past transgressions and Svetlana is trying to make sense of her life, which isn’t easy, considering that she does not really know what she is. Yegor is also more than meets the eye, and he does not know what he really is either. It makes their everyday lives complicated when their actions have a bigger impact than they themselves can predict.

All in all this is a really cool and smart urban fantasy, and that’s not a genre that I delve into with any real enthusiasm all that often, with the possible exception of Blade Runner. It is also really nice to see something like this come out of Russia, giving the viewer a different set of legends and myths and a different skyline as a backdrop.

Night Watch (2004), directed by Timur Bekmambetov, stars Konstantin Khabenskiy (Anton), Vladimir Menshov (Geser), Valeriy Zolotukhin (Kostya's father), Mariya Poroshina (Svetlana), Galina Tyunina (Olga), Yuriy Kutsenko (Ignat), Aleksey Chadov (Kostya), Zhanna Friske (Alice), Viktor Verzhbitskiy (Zavulon), Rimma Markova (Darya, the witch), Aleksey Maklakov (Simeon) Aleksandr Samoylenko (Ilya/Bear), Dmitriy Martynov (Yegor).

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