Day Watch (Russia, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Timur Bekmambetov
This two-and-a-half-hour sequel to the Russian fantasy blockbuster Night Watch boasts an impressive budget, almost nonstop action, and a script so packed with characters, digressions, and subplots that it's visibly burst at the seams. It is, in many ways, the Russian version of The Matrix Reloaded. The first film was of almost historical importance in its home country; Russia (and the Soviet Union) has had a heritage of films that are either high art propaganda (Battleship Potemkin, Aelita Queen of Mars, Man with a Movie Camera) or simply high art (The Mirror, The Return, Russian Ark), but Night Watch was escapist fun for the masses. Granted, it was extremely ambitious escapist fun, with a plot that many critics found impossible to follow, but others likened it to The Lord of the Rings (whether or not they could follow that plot). The film, based on the international bestseller by Sergei Lukyanenko, explained quickly that two supernatural forces are holding an uneasy truce in the modern-day world: one side, the good guys, have formed the "Night Watch" to keep an eye on the bad guys, and vice versa for the "Day Watch." It's basically a cops versus gangsters story, but populated with witches, wizards, shapeshifters, and vampires. When one side transgresses against the other, the other side muses on how to react. (This chess game is really no different than what goes on in The Sopranos.) In Night Watch, we were introduced to Anton, a low-level wizard who learns that his son can become a powerful agent of darkness; despite his attempts to keep him, the boy is recruited, at the end of that film, to the other side. As Day Watch opens, Anton has initiated his friend Svetlana as an agent of the Night Watch, and while on duty they both encounter Anton's boy, and get a sense of how powerful and evil the adolescent has become. Anton grows obsessed with being reunited with his boy, and spends his spare time tracking down the Chalk of Fate, an ancient, magical piece of chalk which can alter the past, and a plot device better suited for a Harry Potter novel. That pesky chalk also provides one of the most absurd deux ex machinas in all of modern cinema. But that's not until you've reached the end of this epic, which features so many fistfights, car chases, and mystical twists that I certainly don't have the time to recount them all here. The most notable and entertaining of these involves Anton going undercover by switching bodies with a female Night Watch agent, which leads to gender-bending complications when he and Svetlana confess their love for each other. It's a great idea in a movie that has a lot of them--I also liked Alisa the witch's golden ring, which allows her lover to feel her emotions and immediately identify if she's cheating on him--but this breathless film has a strange tendency to show off its budget while pursuing blind alleys. Like when Sventlana first mentions that she loves Anton (his car dives off the road and he makes a spectacular crash in a snowbank); or when Alisa drives up the side of a hotel, shattering through windows and driving down hallways, just because she's anxious to see her boss; or when Anton goes to great effort to board a plane to Samarcand, only to turn around when he realizes that's not where he really wants to go. Day Watch is worrisomely obsessed with providing one spectacle after another, each bigger than the last, until you arrive at an absurd, apocalyptic climax replete with tango dancing, a weapon of mass destruction disguised as a yo-yo, a little spider with a baby-doll's head, multiple drunken speeches into a microphone, another car chase--this one with a car crashing straight through a truck lengthwise and surviving intact--a completely irrelevant whodunit unmasking of a murderer, and a ferris wheel crashing down a city street. They might as well have called upon the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It's a shame, because the exhausting and pointless finale undoes a lot of goodwill the film had built before then. Bekmambetov, although he relies too heavily on fast-cutting and heavy metal music, shares with Jean-Pierre Jeunet an intensely visual storytelling style which requires the audience to pay attention to the smallest details, which inevitably become important later on. This provides for some delightful little gags as well as bigger payoffs. Kudos also to the costume design and makeup, which outfits Alisa with red leather, a spiked dog-collar, and a haircut that points upward into little devil horns. The look of this film is richly detailed in its decadence. The decaying slums in which the Night Watch lives and works is in dramatic contrast to the elegance of the forces of darkness, who drink their blood out of fine wineglasses while wearing the sexiest gowns. But, like The Matrix Reloaded, it's much ado about nothing much. Anton is torn--in one scene, almost literally--between his love for his son and his love for Svetlana, but it's never convincing that either one should love him. He's a chain-smoking, drunken, usually bloody wreck. Yet upon these relationships turn the plot--and apparently the fate of the world. I appreciate that all the large-scale action and mayhem pivot on a personal story about love and devotion, but it just doesn't work. All that's left is to lean back and watch the eye candy, and marvel without being charmed.