Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch, based on the novel by Sergei Lukianenko, is an interesting movie. It begins in the past, where we witness epic battles between the forces of good and evil, which ends in a stalemate at which point the two sides declare a truce. A group called The Night Watch is formed and they serve as agents of the light side who make sure that the forces of darkness abide by the truce and don't break the rules. Night Watch agents are invisible to all humans, save for a select group known as 'others' who have senses beyond what normal men and woman have. When one of the 'others' awakens and becomes conscious of the eternal struggle going on around them, they are more often than not drawn to either the light side or the dark side. The forces of darkness also have their own group of enforcers, The Day Watch, who serve as a counterpart to The Night Watch. Got all that? Good.
Cut to sometime in the early to mid nineties and we meet a man named Anton Gorodetsky who meets up with a witch in hopes of getting his girlfriend back. It seems she's left him because she's pregnant, the child she is carrying sired by someone other than himself. As the witch starts going through her rites, the ceremony is broken up by Night Watch agents who bring her in for practicing magic. They're surprised when Anton talks to them – if he can see them, he must be one of the 'others.' Fast forward twelve years to the present day and Anton is now working for Night Watch. He's tasked with tracking down a little boy he is being called to by a vampire and his girlfriend (who he has recently turned). Anton follows the boy to the vampire's lair where he accidentally kills the male bloodsucker while saving the boy's life. This breaks the truce in that Night Watch agents are not allowed to kill and as such, the forces of darkness get a little ticked off at him. Regardless, Anton continues his watch of the boy, whose name is Yegor, and gets to know him as well as the ties that he has to his own past while defending him from the dead vampire's girlfriend who still hungers for a taste of the boy's blood.
While all of this is going on, a woman named Svetlana appears to have been infected with some sort of curse. Anton alerts Night Watch to this when he mistakes her for a witch on the subway, tipped off by the vortex, which appears around her. This vortex could very well spell the end of the world as we know it, or at least as mankind in the film knows it, and so Night Watch has to put a stop to Svetlana, who isn't even sure what all is happening to her.
The first fifteen minutes or so of Night Watch are a little tough to follow if you don't pay really close attention. A whole lot happens very quickly and if you sneeze, you're liable to miss an important point of the initial set up and if you should be so unfortunate, it's likely that later parts of the film will make no sense. Once the set up is over with and things calm down a little bit, the movie starts to become more clear and the plot begins to shape up nicely but even when that does happen there's still a whole lot going on in this film. The pacing of the movie is a little strange – it starts off with a bang as we witness the fantastic beginning battle scene but once it jumps to the present things get a little more odd in terms of how they play out. At two hours, there are parts of the film that could have been tightened up a bit.
Even with some of the pacing problems, however, there's enough that the movie gets right to make this one worth a look. You'll have to turn off the logical portion of your brain and try to look past some typically bad CGI effects to enjoy the movie but if you're able to do that and don't mind the fact that sometimes the movie is just flat out weird, there's a pretty interesting story to be told. There are a few too many spots where the style overshadows the substance but by the end of the movie we can at least care for Yegor and root for Anton as he and his owl-turned-into-a-hot-chick partner, Olga, rush to save the day. The fantasy elements might be too much for some more jaded viewers but if you're able to throw realism out the door and enjoy the film for what it is, it's enjoyable enough.
Fox's 1.85.1 transfer of Night Watch is pretty sharp. As mentioned, this is a highly stylized film and the visuals are all over the place, running the gamut between really light scenes and exceptionally dark scenes with plenty of effects work and an over abundance of CGI work thrown into the mix seemingly every few minutes or so. As such, this could have been a tricky disc to author but thankfully the picture here is quite strong. Color reproduction is very good and black levels stay strong and deep throughout. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts and only some minor edge enhancement rears its ugly head if you look for it. Aliasing and shimmering is present but kept to a minimum, thankfully. Skin tones look good, and there's a surprisingly good level of detail present in both the foreground and the background of the image, which rarely gets muddied up in the shadows or darker sequences. All in all, a solid job by Fox in the visuals department.
Side A of this flipper disc presents the English version of the film in a nice Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix with alternate tracks available in French and Spanish (both in Dolby Digital 2.1 Surround mixes). Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish and English closed captions are provided. Side B presents the movie in its native Russian language in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, again with subtitles in English or Spanish and with English closed captions.
Unless you've got a hang up or an issue with subtitles, watching this film in its native language is the way to go. There are more than a few scenes in which the English dubbing doesn't quite synch up and where some of the accents used give things some slight awkwardness. It isn't that the English track is horrible, it's just that the Russian track is noticeably better and obviously more authentic. In terms of how things sound, there's little to complain about here. The score and the sound effects all sounds really good coming at you from the rear channels when needed and making excellent use of the subwoofer during the action scenes. Some more directional effects would have been welcome during a couple of key moments as there are a couple of spots where it doesn't seem to be quite rambunctious enough, but otherwise there's little to complain about here in terms of quality. Night Watch sounds pretty solid.
Also worth noting in regards to the Russian version of the film is that some subtitle effects are worked into the movie itself – these do not appear in the English language cut of the film and they do make the movie more interesting. In the strange, otherworldly context of the movie these subtitle effects, which literally become part of the movie as they're burned onto the image and are not removable, add to the 'weird' factor of the film in a completely appropriate way. Digital effects are used to give this text some dramatic flair, at times they'll dissolve into a pool of blood and other times they move around the screen in almost the same way that the sound travels through the surround mix. This makes a big difference in how the film plays and while it might sound odd (well, it is odd) it makes the movie more of an experience and it definitely adds to the movie.
Extras on the first disc include an extended ending entitled The Roof with optional director's commentary (in your choice of English or Russian audio). This runs for just over six minutes and, without wanting to venture into spoiler territory, is an interesting alteration of the version used in the feature length cut of the movie. The commentary explains why it wasn't used in this format, which is a nice touch.
Also included is a segment entitled Night Watch Trilogy which is a brief three minute plus segment that looks at this first film and the two announced sequels (which are already gaining steam in their native Russia) through some clips and some interviews with the director.
Fox rounds things out on Side A with trailers for the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes (odd that they omitted this trailer from that disc…), Thief and The Broken Saints as well as a promotional featurette entitled Inside Look: The Omen which goes behind the scenes of the recent remake for all of a minute and a half (it's little more than a commercial).
Side B (the Russian side) on the other hand, has two commentaries, both of contain optional subtitles available in English, French and Spanish. The first track is courtesy of director/co-writer Timur Bekmambetov who delivers his discussion in English albeit with a moderately heavy accent that takes some getting used to (subs are there if you need them). Timur handles himself well throughout this talk and he manages to cover quite a bit of ground, from pre-production and casting choices to post production and effects work. He covers shooting locations and changes that they had to make to certain areas during the production and he also tells us how he was brought on board to direct the project in the first place. He also covers some of the uniquely Russian aspects of the movie, many of which are likely going to be lost on most western viewers, which, once they're explained, makes certain aspects of the movie easier to appreciate.
Sergei Lukianenko, who wrote the original novel on which the film is based, delivers the second commentary track. Like the director he provides a fairly engaging look into the origin of the project, explaining in quite a bit of detail what portions of his source material were changed and how and reflecting on how he feels they worked or didn't work. Fox presents this commentary in text format and thankfully the producers of the DVD were smart enough to ensure that the text for Sergei's talk don't cover up the subtitles for the film so should you want to watch the movie with his commentary going and the subs on as well, you've got that option, which is a nice touch.
While the commentary tracks are nice, for whatever reason Fox decided to omit quite a few of the supplements that were included on their two disc R2 release of the film, notably the making of documentary. Why they did this is anyone's guess, but it's annoying and those who are really into the film will probably want to opt for the import disc as it has everything that is on this domestic release and more and is of comparable quality in the audio and in the video department.
Despite it's multiple flaws, Night Watch is an interesting and entertaining movie and the filmmakers behind the project show some serious potential. Fox has delivered a pretty accessible disc with multiple language options that looks and sounds quite good and which also a pair of interesting commentaries (and some more disposable supplements as well). Recommended for vampire/fantasy buffs, a very solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.