Adapted from the first novel in a trilogy by Russian cult SF author Sergei Lukyanenko, Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (2004) was an apocalyptic urban fantasy full of impressive visual trickery and epic ideas. With, however, its trench-coated vampires and slo-mo fight sequences, the casual viewer could be forgiven for supposing that it was just an East European rip-off of Blade, The Matrix or Constantine – while many of its more mannered elements, including an entire episode involving the metaphysical Romeo agent Ignat, were ruthlessly excised for International distribution, emasculating the film’s bolder claims to originality.
No such problems with its sequel Day Watch, again adapted, confusingly, from parts of Lukyanenko’s novel Night Watch. For this is a film so crammed with idiosyncratic flourishes and bizarre local colouring that anyone hoping to assimilate it to the tropes of more conventional Hollywood fantasy horror would be forced to cut out around nine tenths of its duration. The version we are getting is still a little shorter than the Russian original, but there is now no doubting that Bekmambetov has truly found his stride and created a vision without cinematic precedent – an epic good-versus-evil allegory with a peculiarly Russian sensibility and a richly inventive approach to the visual language of conflict.
On the mean streets of contemporary Moscow, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) is still a minor operative for the Night Watch, assigned to ensure that the Dark Others (vampires, witches, shapeshifters, etc.) do not breach their centuries-old contract with the forces of Light – but, conflicted as ever, he finds himself torn between his would-be girlfriend Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) and his estranged son Egor (Dima Martynov), both of whom just happen to be trainee Great Others on opposite sides of an eternal power struggle.
Framed for murdering a Dark Other, Anton must evade his opposite numbers in the Day Watch and prove his innocence before the dreaded twin Inquisitors (both played by Nikolai Olyalin) can sentence him to annihilation – but fate, helped along by the Machiavellian scheming of Dark leader Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky), is contriving to bring everyone to Egor’s thirteenth birthday party, where one of the planned activities is no less than the end of the world.
If this sounds like standard fare for the urban fantasy genre, nothing quite prepares you for its presentation. Anton and his fellow Others are not cool, slick heroic types, but rather average-looking, mostly middle-aged Muscovite schlubs who just happen to command awesome (if often eccentric) powers. Their weapons are not guns but rather torches, blood-letting drinkpacks, wall-climbing cars, a snow-mask (made out of actual snow), a destiny-altering piece of chalk, some mean tango moves, and in one case a yo-yo that in the wrong (or is that right?) hands can bring about Armageddon.
Fluids are exchanged, time leapt, dimensions breached, bodies swapped, and the result is all at once a complex morality tale, a dark mirror of post-Soviet Russia, and a masterpiece of dynamic surrealism, displaying some of the most imaginative visual effects yet seen in a feature-length movie.