Back in the USSR, Don't Know How Boring You Are
Day Watch / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | June 8, 2007 | Comments ()
Russian-Kazakh writer-director Timur Bekmambetov, who has the second-most enjoyable name to type or say out of all modern international film directors (the winner being Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), has let me down in a big way. My first exposure to the man was last year’s Night Watch, an epic horror-fantasy that entertainingly merged the battle for good and evil with a healthy dose of bureaucratic irony, and I was sufficiently impressed. Based on the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, the film was a frenetic take on an ornately realized universe, and unique in its ambiguity regarding moral absolutes. The story revolved around the Others, a group of supernatural beings who dwell among us and are split into two groups, Light and Dark, and whose respective members keep watch over the opposing party in order to maintain an uneasy truce that was struck a thousand years ago. The first film followed Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) as he joined the Light side to become a member of Night Watch, so named because they keep the Dark side in check; the bad guys, pretty obviously, are called Day Watch. But it was that ambiguity, and the film’s willingness to flirt with the odd mundanity of what magical police forces would look like, that gave it such a unique sheen. And, well, Bekmambetov has pretty much shot all that straight to hell with the sequel Day Watch: It’s long where the first film was tight, it’s sloppy where the first film was focused, and it’s aimless where the first film drove powerfully toward the goal of unspooling a grand story. I wasn’t really aware that watching vampires blow stuff up for a couple hours could be boring — stupid, maybe, but never really boring — but Bekmambetov proved me wrong. Day Watch is one dull slog through a series of pointless battles set to unimaginable thrash metal and serving no point but to sully whatever small joy was left in the memory of the original.
The film picks up an indeterminate amount of time after the first movie’s climactic finale, in which Anton’s estranged 12-year-old, Yegor (Dmitry Martynov), was revealed to be an Other and chose to join the Dark side. Actually, back up: The film opens centuries ago in the snowy frozen waste of what I think was Eastern Russia, where the Asian warrior Tamerlane led his army in storming some kind of castle in order to retrieve the Chalk of Fate. The Chalk of Fate, despite having a regrettably lame title, actually has the ability to grant the user whatever he or she wishes by writing, granting Tamerlane near-infinite power for the rest of his life. Back in present-day Moscow, Anton is busy training Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina), who was revealed to be an Other at the end of the last film and has apparently signed up with the good guys. She’s also spoken of as a Great Light Other, a gift not hinted at last time at all. This is part of the problem with the film: It feels only tangentially connected to the events of the previous movie because most of the conflicts feel retroactively created. First the Chalk of Fate (man), then Svetlana having all kinds of super-superpowers, and then the addition of extra levels to the Gloom, which is a kind of alternate dimension the Others can slide into when they want to pass humans undetected, and which is barely worth explaining except to say that the groundwork for all this mythology was pretty neatly delineated in the first film, and now the second film isn’t embroidering on that story, it’s rewriting it.
Anton and Svetlana respond to a call that a Dark Other is killing people on the street: It turns out to be Yegor, exploring his newfound freedom living with the bad guys. Fearing that the evidence of the crime could be enough to get his son in trouble, Anton decides to help him out by sneaking into the Light side’s archives and destroying the traces of Yegor left at the crime scene. Anton has always been reluctant to bow to the authority of the supernatural laws that govern the Others, and his willingness to completely ignore those rules in order to save his son could have made for an interesting through-line in the film. But Bekmambetov never follows through with the emotional component, instead upping the energy and adding more plots: Soon after the evidence swap, a Dark Other is killed and Anton is framed for the crime, but then he also tries to get his hands on the Chalk, and there’s also some body switching, which is when the entire plot just eats itself. Night Watch wasn’t a somber affair by any means, but Day Watch has exchanged the former film’s darkly cheerful brio for what could only be classified as wackiness, and instead of coming off as an action movie with a sense of humor, it just feels cheesy. What’s worse, the slide from levity to laughable renders the drama that much more impotent. It’s impossible to care about the romantic and emotional travails of the characters when the entire film feels like a farce of some better, truer story.
Day Watch runs a full 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, and suffers from far too many plots with not enough direction on any of them. The first film was remarkably streamlined for the amount of backstory it had to incorporate as it followed Anton’s pursuit of his son across Moscow and attempt to reclaim him. But the sequel is bloated and overlong, and lacks the clear vision of the original. Many of the details feel the same — the English subtitles are still interactively rendered, often blurring behind actors or objects or changing color or altering themselves in other ways to emotionally match the Russian dialogue. But even this charm has been diminished from the first film, replaced by louder music, choppier editing, and some action sequences that make Jerry Bruckheimer look like Wim Wenders. Left to its own devices, Day Watch is merely a weak film, but when paired with its forerunner and considered as a sequel meant to further that weird and fascinating story, it becomes a crushing disappointment.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.