Russian ‘Nightwatch’ a shakey start to horror trilogy

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Night Watch
Fox Searchlight, 2006
Starring Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov
Written and directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Rated R, 114 min.
Action/horror/thriller

“Nightwatch” is a Russian horror film that was on limited release until last Friday. It’s been heralded as the first chapter of an epic horror trilogy. This is an exciting prospect for fans of the genre. So far, “Nightwatch” is off to a decent, but not spectacular, start.

The hero of “Nightwatch” is an alcoholic psychic named Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky). In the world of “Nightwatch,” supernatural forces are divided into two camps: good and evil. People who manifest strange abilities are known as “others,” and Anton is one of these. Anton works for Nightwatch, a good organization that polices the bad “others.” Both sides await the coming of the “great other,” a being so powerful that his allegiance will change the balance of power in the world forever.

The world of “Nightwatch” is well thought out and interesting, which is a key factor in this sort of movie. The Nightwatch is unglamorous and utilitarian. Its officers dress in street clothes and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and levels of attractiveness.

Gorodetsky is an especially interesting hero. He is deeply flawed, lonesome and so drunk he usually looks like he’s about to fall over. The supernatural rules of the world are methodically established and adhered to. It’s an original re-imagining of the world of horror, executed with intelligence and style. The performances and writing are hard to judge because both were originally in Russian, but both seem decent enough.

All the necessary ingredients are there, but “Nightwatch” falls short in execution.

The film has a distinctive style, incorporating “Matrix”-style camera tricks and cinematography. There are some extremely cool images. The “others” of the film have the ability to enter a weird altered state called “the gloom” where everything is dark blue and densely populated by mosquitos. This has a very surreal, creepy effect and looks quite cool.

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Eventually, however, this style begins to get in the way of the story. It’s as though the filmmakers didn’t know how to turn it off. It’s great if some character is transforming from an owl into a person, but a guy sitting in a truck talking on a radio shouldn’t be presented with the same level of intensity. I found myself wishing the film would quit being impressive and get back to the story.

The filmmakers behind “Nightwatch” also seem to have bit off a little more than they could chew. Given the expansiveness of the world presented, the audience should see a little more of it. The obvious reason we don’t is that the filmmakers couldn’t afford to show it.

There’s a guy named Bear in the movie who supposedly can turn into a bear, but we never see it happen. There’s a girl named Tiger Cub who becomes a tiger in one shot to run across a room. The final battle seemed to be on a smaller scale than it should have been. The filmmakers did an admirable job with what they had, but the demands of the story made the budgetary deficiencies obvious.

All of this could be forgiven, but the film’s critical flaw is that the story ultimately falls short. An entry in a trilogy must operate on two levels. It must serve as the first act of the larger story, while also working as a stand-alone.

“Nightwatch” doesn’t work very well on it’s own. By the end of the film, I knew all the characters reasonably well, knew what the emotional stakes were, and understood what the conflict was. Then it ended. “Nightwatch” works as the first act of a six-hour movie, but doesn’t work as a singular two-hour movie.

“Nightwatch” has the potential to be an awesome trilogy. Now that the story’s moving, the second one may turn out to be really good. The first one is interesting if a bit tedious, and should appeal to genre fans. Unfortunately, it’s not plotted tightly enough to please a general audience.