Who Will Watch the Night Watch?

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Earlier this year, for a story I never ended up writing, I sank some time into watching Night Watch and then, later, its sequel Day Watch, two films that were colossal blockbusters in their native Russia. I mean, huge, industry-changing, all-time box-office record-setters. I’d been aware of their come-hither effects-heavy trailers for a while, partly because I’m a Russophile, and partly because, well, they’re effects-heavy, so it was good to finally getting around to reckoning with them. I think Day Watch is currently in limited release here.

The setup is part Matrix, part Highlander: witches, vampires, etc. are real and move among us secretly, posing as ordinary humans, locked in a millennia-old stalemate, light against dark, good against evil. Each side keeps an eye on the other, guarding against treaty violations and potential imbalances — I suppose, it’s very Cold War-like, if you wanted to read the story geopolitically. When a couple of entities arise on both sides who are powerful enough to tip the power balance, the cold war goes hot. OK, end of plot summary.

The movies have huge amounts of charm, much of it attributable to vivacious direction, and to the lovable shlubby everyman lead, played by one Konstantin Khabensky, a mid-level functionary on the Light side who struggles with the legacy of a past sin. In fact all the performances are great – maybe it’s the legacy of Stanislavsky, but the Russians just don’t seem to have bad actors the way we do. And it’s always interesting to watch an American genre get refracted through a very Other culture — the movies’ preoccupation with fate and predestination is Very Russian indeed.

But they’re kind of a tough watch nonetheless. The pacing feels all wrong to our impatient, gloriously jaded American eyes. They’re very slow, and the story beats come at all the wrong times — the sensation is akin to watching some anime movies, which are painfully beautiful and mind-annihilatingly boring at the same time — the storytelling conventions are just different. And of course the CGI looks cheapo compared with the peta-budget digital creations we’ve been spoiled by. I’d be surprised to see them break out of the art-house circuit.

Surprised, but pleased. It’s almost worth sitting through the two movies for the ending of Day Watch, which is a real burn-the-house down, premise-annihilating twist that feels totally right. Kinda like the ending of Escape from L.A., but so much moreso. Anybody else get that far?

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