The Russians are Coming!

The flashy Night Watch looks poised to conquer America.

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Russian cinema has come a long way since those endearingly awful cold-war musicals where you could count on at least one clear-eyed communist worker to step up at some point and sing a love song to his tractor.

Night Watch, an action-fantasy-horror hybrid that set all sorts of box office records in its native Russia last year and which opens stateside this week, more than holds its own with most Hollywood blockbusters. It's slick, it's sophisticated, and although there are bound to be those who will consider Night Watch to be every bit as endearingly awful as those old boy-and-his-tractor clunkers, you can't deny the sheer skill with which it's made.

Night Watch (or Nochnoi Dozor, which my Russian friends tell me more accurately translates as Night Police) is a mostly successful fusion of Blade, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, The X-Files and one or two other influences I won't burden you with. Originality is clearly not the movie's strong suit, but Night Watch does right by its individual sources and then (and this is the interesting part) cements them with a sensibility that's uniquely, incontrovertibly Russian.

The movie often feels like an exceptionally watchable and well-designed video game sprinkled with a series of mournful Slavic soliloquies, but there's not a single hymn to heavy machinery in sight.

Audiences in Russia went crazy for Night Watch, and the film's American distributors, 20th Century Fox, are obviously hoping for a similar success here. Like so many fantasy films, the movie turns out to belong to a trilogy: The second installment, Day Watch, is currently packing them in at theaters in Russia, and the third part, Dusk Watch, is in production. It's an ambitious framework that makes Night Watch feel both bigger and smaller than it really is.

The film's scope is certainly epic but, as the first installment in the series, there's a tendency for the movie to seem overburdened with exposition, introductions and all the other demands of setting the stage for such an enormous story. Night Watch wows us with plenty of mightily frenetic and fabulously visualized action scenes, but it's constantly interrupting its own flow with some convoluted bit of information about what's just happened or what's to come.

The stage is set in the film's sole bit of English dubbing (Fox wisely chose to allow the remainder of the movie to play out in its original Russian language), where we witness a monumental, Tolkein-esque battle raging centuries ago between the forces of good and evil.

The conflict, a heavily accented narrator informs us, resulted in a stalemate and a strange bargain struck whereby supernatural beings known as Others agree to monitor the truce to make sure neither side tries to tip the balance. Those monitoring the activities of the forces of darkness become known as the Night Watch, while the dark agents keeping tabs on the forces of light are called the Day Watch.

With that bit of cosmic backstory out of the way, Night Watch fast-forwards to more-or-less modern Russia, where a sting operation is in progress to apprehend an illegally operating witch. The sting is another success for the Night Watch squad (who might remind you a bit of a supernaturally-inclined Starsky and Hutch), but the human used as live bait to snag the witch turns out to be yet another Other.

No one is more surprised by this little fact than the human himself, Anton (Russian matinee idol Konstantin Khabensky), who goes from being an ordinary depressed guy to a supernaturally-powered depressed guy with pointy teeth and a penchant for blood-and-vodka cocktails.

As with much of Night Watch, it's not completely clear what the deal is with Anton — he appears to be a vampire of some sort, and quite powerful, although those powers aren't very well defined — but he looks the part in his chic trench coat and big black shades (more Bono than Blade, really), so give credit where it's due.

Anton joins the Night Watch and becomes the film's nominal hero, gnashing his teeth and busting heads while a powerful, Neo-like Other emerges (who might just signal the Apocalypse), planes fall from the sky, and various infernal curses appear, including a Ghostbusters-esque Vortex of Doom.

It's all very cool — "Cool as Hell!" as the film's posters scream (I'm not sure of the blurb's source, but I'm guessing it's not the New York Times) — but unfortunately, that blurb sums up the film all too well. Night Watch looks great, moves fast, and will from time to time have you retrieving your jaw from the floor. But in too many ways the movie is also, like, totally retarded.

Turn your mind off, however, and forget about logic, much less the urge to analyze, and you may very well wind up loving this movie. Director Timur Bekmambetov, a former whiz-kid creator of commercials and music videos, imbues every frame of Night Watch with a stunning visual imagination borrowing heavily from the everyday surrealism of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children). Edits are cleverly orchestrated and cameras routinely accomplish the impossible, whether swooping through a hole in the wall like a crazed insect or, in one spectacular sequence, following the trajectory of a bolt loosened from a plane as it falls from the sky to land in someone's coffee cup.

There's an awful lot going on in Night Watch, and we often feel the film straining to connect its parallel storylines (or even make sense of them), but there are more than enough pleasures here to make up for the narrative fuzziness. Specifically, Bekmambetov creates one of the most memorable worlds we've seen on screen in a long time, a place where the mundane meets the fantastic and no one thinks twice about it.

Witches, wizards and shape-shifters take part in a crumbling, post-Communist bureaucracy where vampires are issued licenses to do their bloodsucking, where supernatural entities play video games in squats, and where the Supreme Headquarters of the Forces of Light is a dingy municipal utility building where nothing works.

The icing on the cake is the distinctly Russian sense of good and evil — a murkier metaphysical scheme honed in lifetimes of corrupt regimes — where both sides are seen as equally dubious. The movie's characters, Dark and Light alike, all have their own inscrutable agendas, and everyone does an awful lot of brooding, but the movie kicks enough major ass to keep us paying close attention.

It's a long way from those crude and quaintly dated commie musicals — and an even longer way from the vintage Soviet masterpieces of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky — but Night Watch could be a better state of the union message than any of them. Addictively chaotic, flashy and fashionably nihilistic, Night Watch might just sum up exactly where Mother Russia is at these days.

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