Title: Day Watch
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Horror
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenwriters: Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Mariya Poroshina, Vladimir Menshov
Night Watch was just interesting enough to be irritating: taking place in a vast, deep universe and unveiling an elaborate mythology, it spun an overwhelming amount of exposition but still seemed to only skim the surface. Freed of the unenviable task of trying to get a franchise off the ground, Day Watch is free to tell a tighter, concrete story, and in the process develops its world more than any amount of voiceover and feverish leaping about could have done. It has fewer hallmarks of an epic, but it feels bigger, fuller — a more complete work of fantasy.
The less desperately frenetic atmosphere lets the series’ fascinating subtext play a more prominent role. We observe, as we did last time, that the all-important fight between good and evil has the feel of a typically Eastern-European bureaucratic hell — decisions are made at committee meetings; the characters expend more energy fretting about the political fallout of a particular course of action than its life-or-death consequences. We notice some other things, too: the heroes are headquartered at a power company, and ride around Moscow in an industrial truck wearing workmanlike down coats and woolen hats, while the villains — the “Dark Others” and their confederates — hole up in a glittering hotel, drive bright red sports cars, and spend most of the running time planning for a party.
The characters are weightier this time around, and seem to matter more as individuals. For all of the film’s ostentatiously surreal flourishes (the last, best hope for the universe is our heroes getting their hands on, I shit you not, the Chalk of Fate), the relationship between Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), an estimable workhorse in the fight against the dark forces, and his trainee Sveta (Mariya Poroshina), who may just be the prophesied Great Other who will shift the balance of the struggle, is gentle, a little naive, and kind of touching — watch the way she tries to negotiate a date out of him. And while the sublot about Anton’s son, who has crossed over to the dark side, grows a little strange, it continues to be useful as an emotional core. Again, the film’s diminished worry about establishing its universe allows this stuff to become integral rather than a clothesline.
None of this is to say that Day Watch makes very much sense, and the climax — which is at least fifteen minutes too long — tosses out so much that any grip you thought you had on the flailing, restless plot will probably slip away. But the film’s sense of humor and director Timur Bekhambetov’s energetic but unobnoxious style don’t let the story’s opaqueness become too frustrating. I wish the ending involved fewer all-powerful balls of foil (for example), but the movie had built up enough momentum that it was able to glide through my burgeoning irritation.
There is something to be said for this brand of alternate-world fantasy. There is never a doubt that the Watch series doesn’t take place in our universe — we are half-heartedly told that all the supernatural goings on take place while the rest of us live our lives blissfully unaware, but the movies don’t invest too much in this notion — but instead of appealing to traditional sword-and-sorcery notions of fantasy, the films rearrange the building blocks of the world we know. After a shaky start, the franchise — a huge hit in Russia — seems to have found its footing.
NOTE: I was able to watch and understand the film in the original Russian. I feel obligated to warn that the English subtitles editorialize absurdly, changing the substance of the dialogue and robbing it of subtlety and nuance. It’s kind of a travesty.