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July 1, 2007

Movie Review – Day Watch (2007)


Naming sequels that are better than the original is a favorite movie lover trivia game. I have a new movie to add to that select group now, the splendid Russian fantasy Day Watch. Deliriously inventive and absurdly entertaining, Day Watch is a sequel to the merely good Night Watch.

Night Watch opened with a prologue that explained the backstory of this fantasy world. Long-lived not quite humans with a wide array of supernatural powers and a common ability to slip in and out of a parallel netherworld live alongside a human population completely unaware of the existence of these others. The not quite human population is divided into two camps called Light Others and Dark Others. An ancient truce maintains a precarious peace between them. The Light Others police their counterparts through a quasi-law enforcement unit called the Night Watch (i.e., policing the Dark Others who are, naturally, denizens of the night) and the Dark Others field a counterpart unit called the Day Watch.

Night Watch was largely concerned with introductions. Introducing the audience to the characters, and the characters to each other to set up the story. Further introducing the audience to an unfamiliar fantasy world – its backstory, power structure, supernatural elements, oddities and rules. It was an enjoyable movie, but it was more about set-up than anything else and the storytelling momentum suffered as a result. The first film’s focus on set-up works to the second film’s advantage. Day Watch opens with a brief reprise of the prologue and a briefer recap of the events from Night Watch, but after that it never slows down for introductions or explanations.

The hero of the films is a rank and file member of the Night Watch. Anton is pretty much just a regular guy Light Other, a likable schlub with no special powers and no great enthusiasm for the job. Picture your basic veteran beat cop. What sets Anton apart from the crowd is that he happens to be the father of an incredibly powerful, alienated and angry adolescent Dark Other.

Anton’s desperate desire to heal his estrangement from his son is the emotional center of both films. In Day Watch their relationship is affected, reflected and refracted by a myriad of other family and quasi-familial units, beginning with the dysfunctional family vibe in the love/hate relationship between the Light and Dark Others and continuing through a range of (true and surrogate, healthy and unhealthy) father-son, mentor-pupil and romantic pairings.

Story and characterization in Day Watch are frequently developed through fantastic (in both senses) action set-pieces. The art design, costumes and effects are wonderfully imaginative and the film is the equal of a Hollywood blockbuster in technical achievement. Day Watch kept me in a state of excited anticipation all the way to its very satisfying conclusion.

I can’t end without a tribute to the absolutely amazing subtitles. Words in a line of dialogue appear on the screen in sequence to capture the rhythm of the spoken line. Excited words literally pulse. Words of anger and passion become red and engorged. The subtitles continue the visual aesthetic of the film and reinforce the dramatic content.

4 stars