If you're unfamiliar with the Byzantine history of the Night Watch fantasy film series -- the actual films, their amazingly sophisticated special effects done on non-existent budgets, their massive popularity in Russia where they've outperformed Lord of the Rings, the who's-who of Russian pop culture that do cameos throughout the films reflecting the nearly iconic status of the series at home -- then there's no room in this review to get into all that. I'm only here to talk about Day Watch, the middle entry in the planned trilogy, which was preceded by Night Watch in 2004 and will conclude soon with Dusk Watch. Day Watch continues the story of the Light Others and Dark Others, two opposing groups comprised of random supernatural beings -- vampires, witches, shape-shifters, sorcerers, etc. -- who live amongst normal folks in modern day Russia and adhere to a peace treaty, in effect since medieval times, that aims to keep everyone's powder dry. The Night Watch is the KGB of the good guys -- they keep tabs on the Dark Others. The Day Watch does the opposite.
Various things can upset the peace, but chief among them is -- hold for laughter -- a mystical piece of chalk. Yeah, like blackboard chalk. The Chalk of Fate, as its called, has its own backstory prologue in Day Watch, which I find to be off-putting and superfluous -- the bottom line is that with the chalk, you can write your own fate and it will come true. You'll have to take my word that it's not nearly as lame on-screen as it sounds. The chalk is sort of a MacGuffin, because if any rogue Light Other or Dark Other gets their hands on it, they can upset the balance of power that keeps the peace and everyone has their own reason for wanting to do that, of course. Whereas Night Watch dropped us into all of this in media res, and was massively confusing, Day Watch has internalized that criticism and taken strides towards making a movie that's understandable, if still Tolstoy-like in its character roster and just very Russian in general with its story-underpinnings of bureaucracy and rule-making.
The story centers around returning characters Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) an unimportant Night Watch functionary and Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) his beautiful Night Watch trainee who is actually a powerful Light Other. Anton also has a son who developed into a Dark Other, and much of the film's plot revolves around Anton's attempt to swipe the Chalk of Fate to rewrite his son's development into a bad guy. As the title implies, you might expect that the focus of this film will be on the bad guys, but its not -- we mostly stick with the same Light Other/Night Watch characters we were introduced to last time. That's a shame, since my favorite character in Day Watch is the mistress of the Dark Others leader, Alisa Donnikova (Zhanna Friske), who not only owns the film's special effects centerpiece -- she drives a car up the side of the building and then into it, in a sequence that wouldn't appear cheap even in a U.S. blockbuster opening in 2008 -- but also ends up spoiling everyone's plans because of her own petty desires. She's just a great character.
Getting a handle on the rules of the series is probably essential for enjoying this series, because halfway through Day Watch, when people started switching bodies like Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore, I began to rack my brain to remember if that happened in Night Watch, and if so, why. Also, for all the various forms that Others can take, those forms sometimes come across as not being terribly well thought-out. Still, I'm happy to say that director Timur Bekmambetov handles even the most complex scenes with a baseline of skill and the harshest thing we can say about him is that he adds in so many layers that it challenges the memory and attention of the viewer, in a good way -- not a Pirates of the Caribbean way. He expects that anyone coming to see Day Watch must be someone who enjoyed Night Watch, so aside from the talky prologue, he doesn't waste a lot of time trying to explain to new recruits what a Dark Other is or what The Gloom is -- if you're there, you should know.
I'm fascinated by Bekmambetov's plan for Dusk Watch. If what I've read holds water, he wants to shoot the third part of his trilogy in the U.S., with American actors, and wants Hollywood to give him some real money to play with. Given the fact that he's already proven himself capable of matching Hollywood's state-of-the-art effects with a pocketful of rubles, what could he accomplish with $100 million? And what studio is going to foot the bill for a film with the same structural complexities as Night Watch and Day Watch? I bet that, if the American angle is the one Bekmambetov goes for with Dusk Watch, it will end up being a simplified, stand-alone fantasy bonanza with nothing more than references to the earlier films designed to fly over the head of the uninitiated American audience member. A cameo by Poroshina here, a reference to someone else there, and so forth. Either way, I'm definitely looking forward to the trilogy capper. The Night Watch series is a tough series to like, but it grows on you.