New Films 






Timur Bekmambetov: Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor) (2004)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2004


This is big cinema―or, to be accurate, cinema that keeps reminding us of its bigness. In terms of budget, ticket sales, visual wizardry, and epic scope, Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch [Nochnoi dozor] (2004) has declared itself Russia’s first "blockbuster," the first film to meet aesthetic and fiscal standards set by American cinematography. Doubts, however, persist. Sometimes Night Watch is loudly, if not arrogantly promoted, sometimes not. Following a trailer that emphasized the martial, gory aspects of the work, subsequent television advertisements on ORT began making gentle fun of Bekmambetov’s grandeur. Several of the film’s key actors, gathered on the street as typical Muscovites, pretended to wonder why Night Watch is called a "blockbuster," since foreign words are neither universally understood nor necessary. "Very lively cinema" would have sufficed as a synonym, they said. The second advertisement in this ironic style showed one cast member whispering in the ear of another in a ghostly, ominous tone: "Go… See… The… Movie…"

It is hard to imagine advertisements for similarly ostentatious trilogies of late, such as The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) or Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001), employing deliberate self-deprecation. There is, as a result, much surrounding Night Watch to suggest an uneasy relationship between the view that cinema can be big, in the American sense of the word, and a niggling suspicion that any such ability (or desire, even) is less self-deprecating than it is self-demeaning.

The most jarring displays of American cinematic normalcy are not the special effects―for they are indeed remarkable―but the insistent inclination towards product placement. Whilst (thankfully) still far from the “hidden” advertising of Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) or Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), for example, various products nevertheless appear frequently on screen, funding a consciously Western aesthetic as they do so. Telephone and internet providers, car companies, coffee and dumpling manufacturers head the list of some very stubborn visitors, to the point where one product (Nescafé) even enters the screenplay verbatim as a domestic advertising slogan: "Great Taste. And a Great Start." So what does all this mercantilism provide, bearing in mind that Bekmambetov also created Russia’s most celebrated financial advertisement of the pre-default 1990s, the ad campaign for Bank Imperial?

Night Watch concerns an ancient treaty signed between the mysterious, if not apocalyptic forces of Light and Dark that operate to this day in our modern, supposedly humdrum world. Primeval magic is alive and well in Moscow. It is here that the film sells itself as a latter-day Master and Margarita and thus "outclasses" the American traditions about which it feels so self-conscious―and which led Nikita Mikhalkov to label Bekmambetov’s trilogy “our answer to Tarantino.” As the promotional blurb has it: 

When nighttime falls and the domain of evil knows no bounds, dark wizards, vampires, and other iniquities come alive. Their strength is great; ordinary weapons are insufficient in the struggle against them. Yet there are individuals who pursue these nocturnal hunters; individuals who forever battle nightfall’s progeny―and overcome them. They do so in strict observance of the Treaty signed centuries ago by the Light and the Dark. Their name for these individuals is the Night Watch.

The Night Watch monitors the behavior of dark spirits after sunset; in daytime the roles are reversed. This dualism, based upon an extremely successful series of fantasy novels by Sergei Luk'ianenko, underlies another way in which the movie tries to outdo Hollywood: philosophically. The opposition of day/night, good/evil is made evident from the opening scenes as two armor-clad hordes face off over a narrow stone bridge. Two unfortunate combatants drive their lances into one another, thus bound for eternity on their rusting tools of destruction. Since much of the film is dedicated to the choice of joining Darkness or Light forever, though, supposedly "Russian" notions of selfhood spiral beyond the limits of an initial Manicheanism to the point where "everything" is intertwined, either in clumsy dialogs on the secret workings of fate or in neo-Dostoevskian (if not neo-Orthodox) musings on "nation as network/congregation" and "desire as synonymous with deed." At one point a vampire is told by the hero, Anton (Konstantin Khabenskii): "You want to be human? Act like a human!" These desired acts and actions are depicted as private moral choices between right and wrong, spiraling outwards with unseen, far-reaching consequences in public existence.

In this moral tale of Russia’s frenzied witches and vampires there is a patent desire to match foreign filmmaking in ways that mollify feelings of provincialism and, in doing so, salvage something good from the enduring disorder of a truly nightmarish century. This stylish depiction of violent fantasy amid dilapidation occasionally suggests Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), a post-imperial, "provincial" celebration of broad-shouldered, junkyard bravado that both simplifies and outstrips social principles elsewhere in the "civilized" world.

When Khabenskii’s character battles Zavulon, a High Wizard of the Dark in the closing scenes, he grabs a discarded neon strip-light that suddenly radiates in his hand like a Jedi saber; this clash between Dark and Light over a virtuous son (who has yet to choose Good or Evil) mirrors both the complex paternal relationships of Star Wars and is visually structured as Rembrandt’s enormous canvas of Abraham and Isaac in the Hermitage. Dusty masters and obsolete scrap are raised to the level of holiness; the culturally peripheral can be made central―yet only the enlightened know how. In one telling episode where contact is made between two of these “chosen” spirits in the metro, Anton screams in unbearable tension, but Bekmambetov cuts to an outsider’s viewpoint, too; here, in our dull world, the magical dimensions of darkness are no more than drab, municipal transport. The deafening chaos of the supernatural (of Anton’s orphaned consciousness) is unknown to us; we stand amid the stunned silence of rush-hour passengers. We know nothing.

The movement from isolated, naive outsiders to the realm of enlightened players is aided by the casting of several "cult" figures, to use the promoter’s own term; personalities help to dramatize the ethical maturation of personality. Khabenskii himself began his big-screen career in Dmitrii Meskhiev’s tale of love’s complex virtues, A Woman’s Property [Zhenskaia sobstvennost'] (1999); by 2002 he was headlining a voguish story of ethically bankrupt journalists (Filipp Iankovskii’s In Motion [V dvizhenii]). Gosha Kutsenko, who plays a key member of the Night Watch, was likewise already famous as an MTV presenter and star of Antikiller (Egor Konchalovskii, 2002). But it is the star turn of Zhanna Friske and Il'ia Lagutenko that help to make this project truly chic. Friske, who until recently sang with the female ensemble Blestiashchie, does an infinitely better job of interweaving pop and pulp fiction than Irina Saltykova did in Brother 2 (Aleksei Balabanov, 2000). Her brief role as the witch Alisa is impressively sinister. And yet, it is the performance of Lagutenko as Andrei, a lonely vampire, that elevates these hip cameos. Although on screen only for a few minutes, Lagutenko’s visceral spasms easily match the campy passions that won Johnny Depp so many fans in Pirates of the Caribbean (Gore Verbinski, 2003).

The casting of Vladimir Men'shov, Valerii Zolotukhin, and Rimma Markova, on the other hand, provides a discernible counterbalance or "solidity." Stars of the Soviet screen one and all, they grant the film considerable respectability―something reflected in the roles offered them as wiser, more powerful members of supernatural society. They embody endurance, especially Markova, who is 79 years old. This sense of continuity or of an enduring (ethical) premise across historical precincts leads us back to the issue of cultural "recovery," to an attitude once expressed with clarity by Boris Grebenshchikov: "I’d really rather not see my country divided into things before 1917 and those afterwards. There’s one Russia and one culture."

The problem, though, considering that Luk'ianenko’s first installment of the trilogy was published in 1998, is that although the film may choose (selectively) to commemorate certain elements of its own Soviet provenance, other elements endure willy-nilly. The film ends with a positive imperative that we should "believe in the Light," even when darkness prevails. Nevertheless, as the screenplay makes very clear, the Night Watch created principled licenses for the "manageable" Forces of Dark to operate, but it also uses "live bait" to hound those same Forces. The law both grants and (arbitrarily) defines freedoms. Taking the books at face value, it is initially ambiguous whether Luk'ianenko is being ironic or mythologizing a real-world parallel. Given the massive financial investment of ORT in Night Watch and the production credits for Konstantin Ernst, the ambiguity seems to clarify itself on screen. The concluding scene of ORT’s ten-part television series Another Life [Drugaia zhizn'] (2003), for example, included one of the most grating examples of pandering in recent memory.

The confusion of bold, bloody drama and self-deprecating humor, to which I alluded at the beginning, underlies the restoration or remaking of historical experience in Night Watch. The film, wonderfully entertaining though it may be, is more important by virtue of context than text. In scenes such as the dramatized ignition of the Night Watch’s rescue truck, this movie uses the computer graphics with which mid-1990s Russian television "looked" American in order to "outdo" that same part of the globe. Any excess needed to better American moviemaking would come from something special or local, from the pride and moral rectitude of individuals brandishing neon lights along rusty rooftops. It would come from individual dignity, from the people associated in public memory with the quieter, yet "Soviet" films of Men'shov, Zolotukhin, and Markova. The kindly, more humanly socialist rhetoric of those characters has taken on a very different form in Russian television and media today, however. As a result, the allegedly ahistorical, "decent" social thematics of Night Watch seem uncomfortably close to policy. Just as one cannot imagine cast members of The Matrix expressing socio-cultural insecurity in self-demeaning (promotional) quips for television, so billboards and political posters along the outback highways of Mad Max would be equally odd. Night Watch makes the odd (or unreal) patently real.

David MacFadyen, University of California, Los Angeles

Night Watch (Russia, 2004)

Color, 115 minutes

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Script: Sergei Luk'ianenko and Timur Bekmambetov

Cinematography: Sergei Trofimov

Music: Iurii Poteenko

Art Director: Valera Viktorov and Mukhtar Murzakeev

With: Konstantin Khabenskii, Vladimir Men'shov, Valerii Zalotukhin, Gosha Kutsenko, Aleksei Chadov, Il'ia Lagutenko, Zhanna Friske, Rimma Markova

Producers: Anatolii Maksimov and Konstantin Ernst

Production: Tabbak Film Company, Bazelevs Production, commissioned by Channel One

Timur Bekmambetov: Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor) (2004)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2004