The Reeler


May 30, 2007

Day Watch

High-flown sequel for Night Watch fans and devoted Russophiles only

Night Watch arrived on American shores as a pre-sold blockbuster phenomenon, a beyond-Tony Scott, hyperactive Russian contender that out-performed The Lord Of The Rings to become that country's all-time top-grosser (a title since usurped by the sequel). Fox Searchlight went the extra mile to make Night Watch accessible for Americans, re-cutting it to add plot explanation and -- coolest of all -- creating subtitles that mimicked the on-screen action (think Man On Fire, with bobbing, weaving words that actively distract from -- or, depending on your perspective, enhance -- the visuals).

Fox never got the breakout hit it was hoping for; the film grossed less than $1.5 million within the US. It’s hard to say why: Externally, the film applied Hollywood's edicts mercilessly, including a barrage of CGI, violence and explosions with little order or coherence. My guess is that, despite its surface, Night Watch was just too Russian to cross over -- too dour and grimy in its backdrop, too grounded in the country's shitty day-to-day reality to let the hectic set pieces make an impact. In the first 10 minutes, a character opens his freezer and drinks his last drops of vodka for breakfast, then heads out to the world's filthiest market to buy some animal blood for his vampiric nutritional needs. And this was a good guy. The Western mind reels.

It's doubtful that Day Watch will have better luck making inroads with American geek crowds. Once again the settings are dirty and unappealing, the action fast and frequently incomprehensible, and the whole enterprise steeped more firmly than ever in an obscure frame of reference that you seem to have to know before showing up (briefly: a bunch of nonsense about the Light and Dark Others, which is exactly the kind of typical good-vs-evil supernatural bullshit it sounds like). And then there's the undeniably goofy fact that the whole affair revolves around something called the Chalk of Fate. If you can suspend your giggling long enough during the prologue, you will learn that a 14th-century warrior, Tamerlane, sped his path to victory by getting a hold of this mystical classroom accessory: Using it to write what you want leads directly to gratification, even if that means changing history. This obviously has huge implications for the supernatural battle of the Light/Dark Others, and various Russians begin running around frantically to find the chalk, secure the chalk, steal the chalk back and so on.

If you noticed that I’ve given a coherent summary without actually mentioning any characters, you’ve probably also gathered this isn't storytelling of the highest order. Like its predecessor, Day Watch thrives on moment-to-moment spectacle; it's telling that the coolest moment (a woman driving a car furiously across a building's parabolic curve, then down a hallway, like a souped-up Batmobile) would serve equally well as a car commercial.

Unlike its predecessor, Day Watch will only work for fans of the first installment, albeit with lowered expectations. The aforementioned car clip (all of 30 seconds) is the only visual stand-out, with most of the action set-pieces here merely revisiting the previous film's genuinely startling moments. Russian politics geeks, whoever they are, should also show up to parse the film's unusually rich allegorical content. There is not only evidence of thinly veiled anger at the so-called "New Russians," but a discreet plea for tolerance of satellite nationalities is made to the infamously xenophobic Russian nation (unsurprising, given director Timur Bekmambetov's Kazakhstani origins).

I enjoyed Day Watch for a couple of reasons: I have a major ax to grind with my country of origin and the relentless shittiness of virtually all the settings gave me plenty of ammo; and the film's too much of a spazzy spectacle to not at least hold your attention. Presumably Fox was counting on the former to trump the depressive effect of the latter. Not exactly the road to crossover success, though the studio’s once again done its best; the subtitles don't just wiggle and freak out (a sword cut slices the titles, a blood spatter turns the titles red, etc.), they bowdlerize the rudeness of the dialogue, trying to make it... well, less Russian. The changes are innocuous enough (example: "Would your hand fall off if you knocked?" becomes the milder "Haven't you heard of knocking?"), but I doubt they'll soften the film enough for American tastes. I wish Day Watch well -- it beats most Hollywood blockbusters on their own terms for sheer moment-to-moment distraction -- but only with the mildest of interest.

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