Review for Night Watch
In the early twenty-first century, it seemed like there was a Russian invasion imminent. Most major countries in the world were still friendly to each other, globalism was a thing, and people wanted to share culture. And all of a sudden, Russian blockbuster cinema was a thing, when Night Watch and its sequel Day Watch appeared. Suddenly they were playing in the big leagues, beating mainstream Hollywood at its own game. Alas, what was supposed to be a trilogy wound up forgotten as director Timur Bekmambetov went to Hollywood and made Wanted, kicking off a Hollywood career that continues to this day. And as we’re no longer as friendly, the likelihood of Russian films filling our multiplexes again seems remote. I remember watching Night Watch on TV and really being impressed, and given that I found it and its sequel in a bargain bucket, what better time to revisit it?
It’s a Twentieth Century Fox release, and given that the likelihood of new owners Disney ever giving a Russian supernatural action movie a re-release is low, best to get this release now if you want it.
The Others have coexisted with humanity through history, beings different from humans, with supernatural powers and abilities, often seen as witches or vampires or various other creatures. And through history they have been in conflict, divided into Light and Dark. During the last battle, the one to end it all, a truce was called, a balance formed. To maintain the balance, the Dark Others created the Day Watch, the Light Others the Night Watch, and since then the truce has held. But there is a prophecy that one day an Other will be born who will shift that balance irrevocably in a direction of their choosing.
12 years previously, a nervous man named Anton visited a woman in the hope of getting his girlfriend back. The woman told him that she could do this, if Anton agreed to get rid of the impediment, the unborn child his girlfriend was carrying by another man. The woman was a witch, but before she could work her magics, she was stopped by the Night Watch, and in the mayhem Anton awoke to his abilities; he too was an Other, a Seer with visions of the future. Years later, Anton now works for the Night Watch, and he’s given a mission to tail a vulnerable boy named Yegor, and prevent him from succumbing to the call of vampires. But the time of prophecy is at hand, the truce is about to shatter, and the final war set to resume.
Night Watch gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with the choice of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround English/Russian, DTS 5.1 Surround English/Russian, and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround English dub, French and German with subtitles in these languages and Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish. The Eng/Rus tracks have mostly Russian dialogue but with English voiceover at the start and end of the film. The transfer is pretty good, clear and sharp with good saturated colours, good contrast and strong detail. Some of the historical fantasy battle sequences have a low rent LOTR feel to them, but since most of the film is set in contemporary Moscow, the production value there is much higher. The special effects are also done pretty well, driving the story without being too obtrusive. The sound is excellent, a really immersive and well designed surround track that can be both subtle and bombastic; there’s a scene with an airplane rivet that really brings the quality to the forefront.
The big disappointment in this release is the subtitling. It’s player generated, free of typos and accurately timed; which would be all well and good, but when I saw the film on TV, it had these animated, contextual subtitles that were part of the image, part of the action. Someone shouting would have large text, whispers would be in a small font, the placement on the screen would vary depending on who was speaking, and they would effectively convey emotion as well as just translating dialogue. For once, I wish a release had burnt in subtitles that matched that experience. You can see some of that in the extra features.
You get one disc in a BD Amaray case. The disc boots to a static menu.
Extras with this film include...
Director’s Commentary by Timur Bekmambetov
Novelist Text Commentary by Sergei Lukyanenko
Deleted Scenes x7 with optional commentary (28:42)
Making of Night Watch (39:03)
Characters, Story and Subtitles (5:06)
Characters and Themes (5:15)
Night Watch Trilogy (3:37)
Comic Book Still Gallery (8:44 slideshow)
Poster Gallery (0:48 slideshow)
The video extras are in SD format.
Maybe the original subtitling was a novelty that grabbed my attention, or maybe it actually improved the experience, as last night, I didn’t find Night Watch to be as appealing or as rewarding as I recalled. It’s still an ambitious and quite effective supernatural action thriller, with a strong premise and some serious world building behind it. It’s just that in execution, the film feels muddled and wayward, trying to do too many things at once and not quite holding it all together. Its story is ephemeral and hard to hold onto, and the best thing to do is to just go with the flow, and hope that it all comes together by the end credits. It just about does, but it does make watching the film feel more like a chore than entertainment at times.
It really does have an interesting premise though, creating a modern reality where the supernatural world exists alongside and intertwined with the real world. The Others look completely human, even if their abilities are strange and magical, so they have no problems blending in. And you have this power struggle taking place in the background while no one else suspects, and if they do notice odd events, they attribute it to some strange natural occurrence, freak weather patterns and the like.
It should be a simple tale, especially as the film sets its stall out right from the beginning in this International Cut, with a voiceover setting the stage and quoting the prophecy. When you see Anton visit the witch, and she tries to get him to agree to remote magic aborting his girlfriend’s unborn child, you know that she lies, and the child is actually his, and he is the child in the prophecy as well. And when you see Yegor at the swimming pool, hypnotically drawn by the vampires’ call, you know that he is that child grown up, 12 years later, and when Anton runs into him, you know that the prophecy is about to unfold.
But Night Watch takes us around the houses to get to that point, throwing in so many subplots and ancillary characters that it muddies the picture, not helped by one whopping great red herring as well. The second act feels like a dead-end diversion to nowhere. A personal gripe is that the ancient era battle sequence at the head of the film (and when it’s revisited) reminds me of an episode of Vic and Bob’s Randall and Hopkirk Deceased remake, The Glorious Butranekh, the low point of an otherwise entertaining show, and I find it hard to take the film seriously from the off.
Night Watch isn’t the game changing foreign blockbuster I remember it to be; maybe it never was. The narrative padding drags the film down, although had the original plan to finish the trilogy succeeded, the story might have gained context as part of a bigger picture. Alas, this film has to stand on its own, or at best alongside Day Watch, and although I have yet to watch that, Night Watch doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny. It’s definitely worth a watch, and offers a safe way to broaden your cinematic horizons with some multiplex friendly fare from another land, but be aware that this Blu-ray release lacks that inventive subtitling that originally made the film stand out to begin with.