Sucker Punch

Washington City Paper | February 24, 2006
American distributors don’t import very many foreign genre films, if only because a surfeit of such stuff is produced by Hollywood. But certain exceptions have traditionally been made, including Hong Kong action and French film noir. And though subtitled films are a shrinking sliver of the biz, new genres are occasionally admitted—most recently, Japanese horror. Among such contenders, the Russian sci-fi/vampire flick might seem like a long shot. But if any film can establish the genre stateside, it’s Timur Bekmambetov’s Nightwatch, a political allegory (and home-country box-office smash) that owes more to the Wachowski brothers than to Sergei Eisenstein.

The introduction, admittedly, is not promising: Two half-medieval, half-supernatural armies face each other in a battle that suggests a low-budget, Russian-accented Lord of the Rings. The clash ends when the leader of the forces of good, Geser (Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears director Vladimir Menshov), decides that mutual annihilation is likely and requests a truce. This prologue, reportedly added for the foreign market, is quite unnecessary—although it does make everything that follows seem all that more contemporary. Adapted by director Timur Bekmambetov (a Kazakh-born music-vid veteran) from Sergei Lukyanenko’s novel and scripted by the pair of them, Night Watch is the first Russian import in decades to assault mainstream Hollywood on its own terms. In addition to being MTV-fast and CGI-savvy, the film offers a blend of cynicism and moralism that American viewers should find entirely familiar.

The main story opens in 1992, Year Zero of post-Soviet Russia. Maddened by the romantic defection of his girlfriend, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) locates an apartment-block sorceress who informs him that she can make the wayward woman return. But, she adds, there’s a complication: The runaway lover is pregnant by her new lover, and the child will always be an issue unless the witch causes a miscarriage—a death for which Anton must accept responsibility. Distraught, Anton agrees. But the psychic killing is interrupted by members of the Night Watch, who monitor the activities of the Dark Others. Their work done, the do-gooders realize that Anton can see them: He’s an Other, although he doesn’t know it.

Night Watch’s cosmology is constructed from ready-made parts, and there isn’t time or space to itemize all of them. Suffice to say the movie posits a secret world that’s unknown to regulation humans, a notion that suggests The Matrix as strongly as Bekmambetov’s quick-cut, slo-mo, fast-pan style does. Each Other is born with a particular special power, but he gets to choose between the forces of light and dark, a premise that also recalls The X-Men. And naturally, there are vampires, primal-fear predators long associated with decadent sophistication.

The action picks up again some 12 years later, when a young boy who just might be “the One” is summoned by the hypnotic “call” of a hungry bloodsucker and his goth-chick companion. Anton, now a Light Other, downs a glass of pig’s blood and goes to save the kid. This intervention will turn out to have deep personal implications, of course, but it also threatens the truce between Geser—who directs his forces from the City Light generating plant—and his dark counterpart. The final battle between good and evil may be nigh, but not too nigh: Night Watch is the first film in a planned trilogy.

Like such late-model vampires ’n’ apocalypse fare as Buffy the Vampire Slayer—which the boy watches on Russian TV—Night Watch tempers its silliness with speed, self-mockery, and music. (The last includes the Bravery, heavy metal, and the bouncy tunes of a vampire-fronted group that sounds like the bloodless ABBA.) And in one of their cleverest moves to court the Anglophone market, the filmmakers haven’t merely outfitted the movie with subtitles—they’ve translated the dialogue into text that turns blood-red, waxes and wanes, and moves about the screen, making the hated act of reading into another part of the fun.

The film is notable for more than its flash and wit, however. It’s also the first exported post-Soviet film that breaks the spell of the mystical and folkloric—Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergo Paradjanov, Alexander Sokurov—in favor of a pop-cultural equivalent of an earlier Russian mode: the formally playful experimentation Dziga Vertov posited as “revolutionary” art in the ’20s. Though Night Watch moves so quickly that its politics might not even register, it does draw needed depth from the fact that vampires are hardly the most bloodthirsty creatures to have walked Moscow’s streets. Whereas The Matrix proposed a cataclysmic war hidden behind a silicon curtain, Night Watch suggests, not unreasonably, that the conflict between good and evil is here, there, and everywhere—and always has been.

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