From Russia with Blood

Night Watch

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, March 27, 2006


Russia's triumphant rise from cultural backwater to dazzling center of creativity and profundity during the century before the Bolshevik Revolution was mirrored by its sad decline under Communism. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 might have been expected to unshackle Russian artistry, but over the last decade and a half, little has emerged that has caught the attention of the West.

Still, hope for a Russian aesthetic revival endures, so when the film "Night Watch," the first of a planned trilogy that has set box office records in Russia, finally reached America, the Saturday evening crowd at an art house cinema in West Los Angeles solemnly took it in as if it were the second coming of Crime and Punishment.

In reality, "Night Watch" is a clever and entertaining (if confusing and not at all scary) commercial fantasy film about supernatural undercover cops who arrest vampires. While reminiscent of the great Mikhail Bulgakov's long-banned 1930s novel about the Devil's visit to Stalin's Moscow, The Master and Margarita, it's actually closer to the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and last year's Keanu Reeves theological thriller "Constantine."

"Night Watch" is built on the current Hollywood economic model. It's a special effects-encrusted and lavishly advertised blockbuster that has spawned a franchise. Of course, the financial scale is tiny by comparison: "Night Watch" cost all of $4 million to make and reaped $16 million at the Russian box office. Fortunately, a dollar goes a lot farther in Russia, and "Night Watch" looks terrific. The computer-generated imagery is professional, and Moscow's grubbiness has never been depicted so slickly. While "Night Watch" is a pastiche of American hits, there's a distinct Russian flavor and a crucial anti-abortion plot twist that Hollywood wouldn't touch.

As veteran investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein documented in The Big Picture, television's seduction of the old habitual moviegoer has meant that the studios must conjure up an audience from scratch for each new film, at an average of almost $30 million in American advertising costs.

Not surprisingly, movie executives therefore try to lessen risk by greenlighting familiar-sounding titles, such as sequels. Unfortunately, this can result in "Matrix" Syndrome, where the filmmakers, who expended every idea they ever had in their breakthrough movie, are exposed as creatively bankrupt when given huge budgets to concoct follow-ups.

An alternative is to plan on shooting a trilogy from the beginning, as in "Lord of the Rings." The downsides, however, of plotting on a three-film scale, from which "Night Watch" suffers, are that the first installment spends an inordinate amount of time introducing plot and characters and never reaches a satisfying resolution.

Loosely based on the first novel in a bestselling trilogy by science fiction author Sergey Lukyanenko and directed by Timur Bekmambetov, both born in Kazakhstan, the film expounds a vaguely Zoroastrian dualistic cosmology. The battle between the well-balanced forces of Light and Darkness, fought by mystical Others who dwell amongst us, once became so destructive that in 1342 their leaders negotiated a complex truce. But now this Cold War threatens to turn apocalyptically hot again.

The heroes of "Night Watch" are a grungy squad of Light Other police officers who work at night, apprehending bloodsucking Dark Others who violate the rules. Yet, the main characters seem to be willing to break a lot of eggs to make an omelet, dangling innocent humans as "live bait" to entrap the vampires.

How do we know the protagonists actually are the good guys they repeatedly insist they are? The vampires, who, on a personal level are often friendly or glamorous, argue that they're just doing what comes naturally when "the hunger" is upon them, and seem sincerely aggrieved by the cops' procedural corner-cutting. Indeed, these vampires aren't all that bloodthirsty by the standards set by such prominent historical Muscovites as Ivan the Terrible, Trotsky, and Beria.

It's possible "Night Watch" is an ambivalent allegory of recent Russian history, in which the morose heroes -- who espouse high ideals for which the ends justify the means -- represent the old Soviet KGB secret police, while the sleazy villains -- gangsters, pop stars, and black marketeers -- embody the new Russian mafioso capitalism.

Or, then again, "Night Watch" might be just a cops and vampires flick. We'll have to wait for "Day Watch" and "Dusk Watch" to find out.

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and language.


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