Originally shown October 20, 2010
Looking at some of my reviews lately, it seems like I’m just fawning over everything. That’s only natural for Movie Klub: if you’re showing a picture to a bunch of your friends, you want to show something awesome. But a stinker occasionally gets through, and the Russian film Day Watch was one of those.
Day Watch was released in 2006, a sequel to the surprise 2004 hit Night Watch. I didn’t see Night Watch, but it was well-received by a lot of critics I respect, so I had high hopes for the sequel. I had the same hopes for Day Watch as I did when I saw a recent episode of Game of Thrones on HBO: I was arriving in the middle of the series, but if the entry I was watching was well-made, it shouldn’t matter. In the case of the HBO show, it worked; in the case of the movie, it so did not.
The heroes and villains of the series are vampires, I suppose: they drink blood, but the film’s Wikipedia page refers to them as “Others” and they have several magical-type powers also. This makes Day Watch‘s opening 15 minutes very, very confusing. We start in ancient history, where a piece of chalk is introduced to be a MacGuffin in the present day, and then we transition to an action sequence in the present day where a couple of characters … well, I’m still not sure what they did, or what powers they used to do it.
We will eventually learn that Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy) and Svetlana (Maria Poroshina) are members of the Day Watch, a group of vampires who apparently can go around during the day – just another reason why I’m not sure they’re vampires. They are in some sort of uneasy truce with the Night Watch, a group of vampires who are basically just like them, but evil. However, I learned this very slowly, because about nine-tenths of Day Watch presupposes that you’ve seen the first movie and have its mythology imprinted upon your brain.
In that way I was reminded of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. I enjoyed Curse of the Black Pearl quite a bit, but Dead Man’s Chest seemed painfully obscure to me, full of references and in-jokes. I can only imagine how tough it must have been for people who didn’t see the first movie. The worst example was when Keira Knightley’s character fake-fainted in the middle of an action sequence, a joke which was literally only funny if you’ve seen the predecessor (and wasn’t all that funny even in that case). It’s the same with Day Watch: a lot of it seemed so ill-defined that after awhile I just assumed that something I didn’t get was referenced in Night Watch.
Setting all of that aside, though, Day Watch is still a mess because it’s all over the place about what kind of movie it wants to be. The opening sequence gives you the idea that it’s going to be one of those chasing-the-artifact action films, like Tomb Raider with vampires or some such. I was down with that, but then it switches to a murder mystery when Anton is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. The movie spends a brief period of time as a body-swapping comedy (yet another of the vampires’ ill-defined powers). It seems as though a political thriller is always on the verge of happening, as Night Watch and Day Watch agonize about who will be the first to break the truce. As the action sequences escalate I was starting to expect a superhero-type climax, but the villains’ powers escalate so much faster that it’s more of a disaster film. And if you’re expecting a big showdown between Anton and any one of the opponents that the film suggests might be his end-boss, well, you’re going to be disappointed.
Director Timur Bekmambetov, who also adapted the screenplay from a popular series of Russian novels, has a great eye. Every shot in this movie looks like a lot of thought and effort went into it, and I did appreciate that. But it’s not enough. Just because your movie has a nifty scene where a car is driven across the surface of a massive apartment building doesn’t mean you’re excused for the bland, nonsensical plot developments that follow. Bekmambetov’s career suggests that he didn’t learn: he would go on to Hollywood and direct Wanted, another great-looking film that fails in the face of logical thought.
As I was writing this review I watched a perfect example of a sequel which isn’t too much in love with its own mythology: James Cameron’s Aliens. It unwinds some exposition which explains what has already happened, but only as much as is needed to keep the plot moving. Everything else we see for ourselves. In a way that movie is even more scary if you haven’t seen its predecessor; since you might share the Colonial Marines’ blase attitude toward the alien threat. Other great examples are the Bourne movies or The Empire Strikes Back, where the first movie might as well not have happened, but having watched the first movie still enhances your viewing experience of the sequel.
The problem is that Day Watch had an impossible act to follow: by all sources I’ve read, Night Watch singlehandedly saved the moribund Russian film industry from collapse. So, as in Hollywood, it was determined that the best business move was to deliver a sequel that took the first film and went bigger, louder, more. Also as in Hollywood, that approach led to a muddled mess.
Reviewed by Mark Young