- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

“Night Watch” is Russia’s rough equivalent to “The Matrix,” the first slice of a trippy trilogy jammed with ingenious sights and enough big ideas to spark countless rap sessions.

The film shattered attendance records in its home country, but it’s not likely to have a comparable impact here. Never mind the subtitle factor

the film’s plotting is so dense audiences may not stay awake through part one, let alone hanker for parts two and three.

Those who do will see a film that manages to be both groundbreaking and derivative, hewing closely to foreign sensibilities while wowing us with sequences straight out of Hollywood.

It’s a balance that captures the best of both worlds, but only for a spell.

—Based on a best-selling novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, “Night Watch” begins in flashback way back. We see a righteous battle like something out of King Arthur’s time come to an end, and the opposing forces representing light and dark agree to an uneasy truce.

—The two sides settle on a dangerous status quo. Neither side will unfairly tip the balance of power in their favor, a variation on last year’s unfairly maligned “Constantine.”

Fast forward centuries later, and we watch a distraught man named Anton (Russian film star Konstantin Khabensky) strike a deal with a clairvoyant to get his philandering and pregnant — girlfriend back. To do so, the clairvoyant will try to kill the baby from afar. Anton isn’t the baby’s father, and he believes his ex will never return to him so long as she bears another man’s child.

The sequence is unlike anything we’ve seen before, filled with surreal and disturbing moments, and when it’s over we’re catapulted 12 years ahead to roughly the present.

—Anton, with less hair but the same lost gaze, is pursuing a young boy who may be the “chosen one,” the person meant to tip the scales in the long dormant war. But we’re not sure which side the boy will favor. Nor do we know if Anton will be able to keep the lad safe from the unsavory types out to get him.

From here, it’s a mad rush of shape shifting blood-guzzling humans all conspiring to nudge destiny to their side without bending the rules.

Anyone with a sure grasp of what’s going on has a leg up on this critic, although the film’s end does take a turn toward clarity.

“Night Watch’s” budget, rumored to be under $4 million, didn’t restrain co-writer-director Timur Bekmambetov from creating a fascinating sub-universe of quasi-vampires and morally twisted heroes. “Night Watch” also packs, for no extra charge, a rare anti-abortion theme at its dark heart.

Some set pieces are hoots, like a truck flipping over front over end, or a surgery conducted with someone’s hands rather than a scalpel.

The rest, alas, is far less memorable.

While Mr. Khabensky is a star in his homeland, his work as Anton is the least interesting aspect of a very intriguing story. Somehow he manages to reduce a character who gulps blood and plays a role in the grand battle for Earth to little more than a cipher.

“Night Watch” will be followed by “Day Watch,” the second in the planned “Watch” trilogy. If the films follow the “Matrix” quality path — a gripping opener followed by lesser sequels — the next two “Watches” could be a trying time for all.


TITLE: “Night Watch”

RATING: R (Disturbing imagery, violence and adult language)

CREDITS: Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Mr. Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis.


116 minutes

WEB SITE: www2.foxsearchlight.com/nwnd/


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