Dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2004, Russia, 114 mins, subtitles
Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Galina Tyunina
If you're in the mood for a bizarre hybrid of The Matrix and Buffy The Vampire Slayer Russian style, then Night Watch is the film for you. Only, take a couple of headache pills with you as Timur Bekmambetov's directing style is as dizzying as that sales pitch.
His saga of warring angels - light and dark - fighting over the soul of a young boy in modern-day Moscow has become a huge box-office hit in its home country and already spawned a sequel. But it's now entering a market saturated with hi-octane, effects-heavy blockbusters - has it got anything new to offer? At first, Night Watch comes on like a Lord of the Rings wannabe with two great armour-clad armies clashing in an indistinct time in the Earth's past. But then, it smartly segues into the dingy environs of a modern housing block where a man is seeking the services of a witch to get rid of an unwanted child. Such a brilliant gear change in narrative might augur well for an enigmatic thriller if it wasn't for a Biblical-style voiceover that bluntly sets out the Good vs Evil structure of the plot.
This becomes the pattern of Night Watch - a series of good ideas thrown together in the hope the combination will add up to something more original and striking, only for the whole to collapse under direction that is either too literal or wantonly obscure. Bekmambetov belongs to that "film school" group of directors who think they must show they are "directing" at all times, throwing every trick - jump cuts, slo-mo, time-lapse photography - at their audience in an attempt to impress them, only to confuse them thoroughly. It's like watching Wong Kar-Wei on acid. At one point, we follow the trajectory of a tiny bolt falling for what seems like aeons from an aeroplane down through the clouds into the lift shaft of a tenement building. All very impressive, but it advances the plot not one jot and holds up the pace considerably. And when the film moves into its most intriguing arena of conflict - the "Gloom", a parallel dimension through which angels, but not humans, can move - Bekmambetov steps up the gimmick quota. The drone of unearthly mosquitoes eerily evokes its presence, but the endless play with slow-motion action and voiceover just bewilders the audience at a point when they need to be most clear about this new environment.
In fairness, the director is working with a script that is itself muddled and over-ambitious. There's about three films in one here - a modern variant on the vampire mythos, with nods to Interview With A Vampire and the aforementioned Buffy, an Oedipal drama with a father unwittingly discovering a long-lost son, and a disaster movie concerning a crippled jet. Even at 114 minutes, the film just can't cope with this narrative overload. The airplane subplot does provide a fantastic climax with the craft heading into a Moscow plunged into darkness by a power cut - but it comes two-thirds of the way in. After that, the remaining plot strands have to be mopped up and, although the film strives for an admirably ambiguous and downbeat ending, the resolution of the protagonist's fight for his son is not as potent as that exciting action sequence and is offset, anyway, by a concluding voiceover that basically tells us everything will be all right. After all, they've got to leave room for a sequel.
One last, unequivocal plus point - as someone who has worked in the subtitling industry, I can only applaud the ingenuity with which the production team have made this most functional of aides stylish and attractive in an attempt to appease a notoriously caption-phobic public. Whatever else might be said about Night Watch, its font-changing, screen-busting subtitles must be ranked the best for any film ever. That's something.isn't it?