Night Watch (Ночной дозор, Nochnoi Dozor) is a modern dark fantasy film from Russia. It is notable for being one of the first relatively high-style, CGI effects-laden releases from a Russian filmmaker following the breakup of the Soviet Union which enjoyed a widespread release. It is loosely (very loosely) based on a series of books by author Sergei Lukyanenko, which comprises four books - Night Watch, Day Watch, Dusk Watch (Twilight Watch in the English) and Final Watch.

Damodred, who has a good point, mentions that it is highly recommended to read at least the first book before seeing this film. The author (and the books) are popular in Russia, and the film is (like the Harry Potter movies) an adaptation of a story which it is assumed a large percentage of the audience is familiar with. Like the Harry Potter movies, then, there are a number of elements missing from the movie which, no matter how cleanly they have been excised, nevertheless vastly increase the amount of sense that the rest of it makes if they are known.

It's difficult to review this film without spoilers. Much of what lends it its particular flavor comes as part and parcel of the story. However, before attempting to dance too close to betrayal, some general observations can be made safely. This is, as I mentioned above, a dark fantasy movie. It has been placed in the horror genre by some, but that does it a disservice - not because the genre is beneath it, but because it fits badly into the shape the words 'horror movie' paint in the minds of many people.

One thing about Night Watch is clear, though, and quite refreshing - it has a very distinctive feel about it which, I am told by several people who I trust to be right about this, is authentically Russian. I am not familiar with the culture or the atmosphere of Russia or Moscow, and the film takes place entirely within modern Moscow. However, while there are little signs of the Soviet Moscow so familiar to avid consumers of Cold War film - tiled cafe walls, tiny vodka stands, the elegant Metro stations, the everyday/all day consumption of zakuska with one's vipivka it is a swirl of one shade in a riot of modern color. Industrial technology painted in pukesick green and brown coexists with cars, computers and flat panel HD televisions of intimately familiar and sharp-edged blacks and garish primaries. The contrast of three generations of family crammed into a baize-tabled dining room eating borscht, placidly ignoring a bevy of interlopers who have set up a LAN of laptops and are going about all manner of mysterious business - all this is profoundly different from American moviemaking, and it's good.

What's it about? Ah. Here comes the dance close to the edge.

I'll try to stick close to things you might see in the trailer. It's about people, mostly - and the other people that walk among us. Like many other dark fantasy movies, it concerns an underworld of power, and how people fall into and out of it, and how they co-exist once there. They are called the Others, and they come in two varieties - the Dark and the Light. This isn't a vampire movie, although vampires show up - they're one kind of Dark Other. So are witches. There are psychics, and changelings, and hunters, and cops, and inquisitors.

Long ago, the Dark and the Light were at war. We're shown their last great battle, two armies meeting by chance on a bridge, engaged in a death struggle between ring mail clad, sword-bearing foot soldiers, pikemen and their contemporaries. Realizing the evenness of the match, the generals of the Light and Dark armies call a truce, a truce that has held to this day; and to regulate the activities of the Dark Others, the Lights maintain the Night Watch. The Darks maintain the Day Watch, to keep track of the Lights. And so both sides make sure the Truce is not violated; the Lights keep the Darks from preying unduly on the normal humans, who are unaware of their very presence, licensing those who must in order to survive (I said vampires showed up, right?)

And like every good fantasy, there's a Prophecy. But I'm not going to get into that.

We join the action in modern day Moscow, when...something happens. Something that begins to tip this for-so-long static complexity of forces, and we watch as the agents of the Light and the forces of the Dark begin to move about, frantically, in reaction.

Powers are unleashed. Pasts are revealed. In some cases, lives are taken.

And it's amazing what a flashlight can do.

The movie, in my opinion alone, doesn't make it up into the ranks of truly memorable fantasy action flicks. There's no serious plot twisting; there are a few attempts at turnabouts, but they seem to have come by liberties taken with the novel source material, and it shows a bit. Much of the complexity of the novel (I've only read the first), much of the philosophy involved in the balance and difference between the Dark and Light sides which gives the Truce and the War its power is missing in favor of action sequences and more expedient storytelling.

This is offset to some degree, but not entirely, by the particular nature of the vision, as I said earlier. It's refreshing to come across a film which doesn't really feel like a rehash of The Matrix or of a Paul Verhoeven film and which manages to retain its character while playing with the big budget boys. Especially one that was made for just over $4.2 million U.S. dollars. The plotline and the trailer will call up comparisons (to Western viewers) with the big-budget spectacle Underworld. I've seen that, and my take on it is that while there are many fewer guns in this movie, and while I didn't see any women nearly as hot as Kate Beckinsale in leather tights, this was a better movie than Underworld - more interesting and much more distinctive.

The international release of the film done by Fox Searchlight, which is the one I saw, has apparently been edited as far as content - several scenes are missing and a few are added in order to make the storyline more easily followed by a language-bound audience. I saw it as a dubbed release, as well; I believe with the original cast, but I'm not positive.

Note: if you're going to see this movie, you'll want to see Day Watch (Дневной дозор, Dnevnoi Dozor) - they're really two parts of the same movie.

Night Watch (Ночной дозор, Nochnoi Dozor) - 2004
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay: Timur Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis

Konstantin Khabensky - Anton Gorodetsky
Vladimir Menshov - Gesser
Viktor Verzhbitsky - Zavulon
Valeri Zolotukhin - The Butcher, Kostya's Father
Aleksei Chadov - Kostya
Mariya Poroshina - Svetlana
Galina Tyunina - Olga