The way Fox bent over backwards to buzz up 2006's "Night Watch," nothing less than a masterpiece of comprehensive fantasy filmmaking would suffice. Too bad the actual finished product was a blurred bit of sensory overload; an obese production helmed by a director more fascinated with edgy visuals than fashioning an appealing entry point to this epic Russian trilogy.
When forces threaten to disrupt the treaty between Light and Dark, it's up to Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) and the officers of the Night Watch to find a way to protect this fragile bond. The answer is found in the Chalk of Life, a magical drawing tool that can alter history and restore peace. Off to find the Chalk, Anton uncovers unspeakable betrayals and frightening new enemies as he attempts to bring change to the land and his own destructive life.
"Day Watch" is the second chapter of the vampire story and right from the start it feels like a more manageable affair. With a good deal of the narrative positioned in the last film, "Day Watch" has more elbow room and it takes the surprising opportunity to have a little more fun with itself. That's not to say they've turned the franchise in an entirely new direction, but there's a kindness of sorts blossoming in the middle of all the visual nonsense and laborious narrative.
Part of this new emotional core is found in the arc of Anton, who is woozily starting to appreciate the outcome of his actions from the previous film. "Day Watch" hands Anton more to do besides bear wide-eyed witness to the remarkable happenings between the Dark and Light. The film even manages to smuggle in a little comedy, with Anton and sorceress Olga switching bodies to better infiltrate the Dark, inadvertently coaxing romantic intentions out of Svetlana, now a smitten Light Other. Not laugh-out-loud stuff, mind you, but these films are powered by such bleakness, any tip of the hat to smiles is a welcome change.
With the Chalk of Fate, the purpose of "Day Watch" is also a bit clearer. The Chalk is only a small part of the fantasy tapestry, but it's a strong focal point in a film series that needs a singular beacon badly. Director Timur Bekmambetov assuredly moves the Chalk's position around, creating a heated atmosphere of need between the warring sides. Coming after the cluster bomb of allegiances, exposition, and character introductions in "Night Watch," this new stripped down storytelling clarity makes the picture a much more tolerable sit.
Where "Day Watch" loses me again is in the director's obsessive need to stylize everything to a point of ludicrousness. Bent on becoming the Russian equivalent of Michael Bay, Bekmambetov cakes on the slo-mo and blown-out CGI to force the film into an unnecessary visual coma. It registers as nothing more than a filmmaker terrified of confronting the complexity of the story, relying on tricked-out visuals to keep audiences in their seats when comprehension is nowhere in sight. With greater passion handed to the actors for the sequel, the artificiality of the film is even more tiring than "Night Watch."
While there is a third film still to come someday, "Day Watch" certainly behaves like the last act of a trilogy. With an apocalyptic ending, characters altering their fates, and a grand display of ferocious might between Dark and Light, the film concludes wonderfully, forgoing the need to set the stage for whatever mayhem is up to bat next. The picture is still a Russian-centric blob of overcooked genre pie filling, aiming high but barely able to keep up with itself; yet, "Day Watch" is a step in the right direction, where feeling, desires, and struggles are paramount, not the next big neato shot and festering slab of baffling backstory.
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