Things have a habit of coming in threes. Bad news. Wise men. Lions. And lately, it seems, films. In the wake of Peter Jackson’s epic Lord Of The Rings studios have cottoned on to the fact that, if you get a group of actors, script writers and locations together for one film, you may as well turn out a sequel or two while you’re there. Timur Bekmambetov’s Nochnoy Dozor (Nightwatch) follows this rule.
Russian made, its premise is an apocalyptic fantasy tale of good and evil. The world as we know it is inhabited by others who, while human in appearance, posess an array of decidedly inhuman powers. They are divided between the forces of darkness and light, locked in an uneasy truce which now, after centuries of peace, appears to be about to break.
The titular nightwatch is a group of these others, from the good side naturally, who are charged with observing and maintaining the peace. Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) is one of them, blessed with the gift of foresight. Drunk and shambolic, he staggers around Moscow, leaking blood and hunting vampires. An archetypal anti-hero, as the film progresses Bekmambetov meditates on the difference between good and evil and the blurred line in between. Or attempts to at least.
The film itself is beautiful and initially has a lot to recommend it. It’s always a pleasure to watch an effort from outside Hollywood, especially one that layers on the style in such thick strokes. Barely a minute passes without a freeze frame, slow motion or Matrix-esque spin around, all of it set against a gloriously seedy Russian underworld. Subtitles leap out, dance around or cower in the corner of the screen dripping blood. Anton, fighting an invisible foe with a mirror and a coatstand or desperately trying to come to terms with his chequered past makes an enjoyable lead, woefully ill equipped to fight the forces of darkness and, for a time, the thing cracks along at a fair pace.
But only for a time. Beneath the style there isn’t much of a film to get your teeth into, the plot, threadbare to say the least, is seemingly entirely borrowed from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the action scenes, by far the best bits, are few and far between. After initial activity the film slows to a monotonous crawl which the occasional comic aside, intentional or not, can’t rescue it from. Much of the time is spent in endless introduction of characters who disappear almost as quickly as they’ve come, with barely time to spit out their back story, and the whole thing judders to a fairly arbitrary conclusion.
It seems obvious what went wrong. However cost effective, making films like this is a massive temptation and Bekmambetov forgot that he was making three films at once, not one film in three parts. The next two movies, already in post production, are shamelessly cued up and it’s taken as read that you’ll go and see them, while this one is given only the most cursory attempt at a conclusion.
Lord Of The Rings, with all its history and anticipation, had a licence to do this. Nightwatch does not. The power of three overcame the golden rule; a film should really be self-contained, and always entertaining. Nightwatch, for all its style, fails on both counts.