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Nochnoi dozor (Night Watch)

(2006) *** R
114 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Timur Bekmambetov. Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Maria Poroshina, Galina Tyunina, Mariya Poroshina.

The slick, colorful, nicely acted Night Watch is all I ask and never get from Hollywood's monochromatic, humorless vampire pictures. Certainly, there's nothing new to the plot, redressed from a number of portentous "forces of evil versus forces of good" fantasy horror tales. And yet director Timur Bekmambetov gives his pulp fiction enough energy and wit to make Night Watch a rewarding genre diversion.

Adapted by Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis from Sergei Lukyanenko's novel, Night Watch details the underground conflict between supernatural "Others." Though a tenuous truce has been in effect for centuries, the forces of Light make up a Night Watch to police the forces of Dark (who obligingly return the favor by Day Watch). Neither side is allowed to recruit humans by guile: good and evil must be freely chosen. The shape-shifters and sorcerers on the Light side and the vampires on the Dark side await the prophecied "Great Other" who will decide once and for all if Light or Dark will overtake the world.

The story begins with the Night Watch busting an improper use of "live bait" in 1992 Moscow. Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) is tempted with the possibility that magic can abort his adulterous wife's pregnancy and win her love back in the same fell swoop. But the interrupted act winds up putting Anton in the ranks of the Night Watch, where he must now risk entering the Gloom to save hapless humans like the man he used to be. As flocks of crows circle ominously, Anton becomes embroiled with the plight of a boy named Yegor (Dima Martynov), who holds the interest of tenacious Dark agents. The word on the street is to bet on Dark: "It is easier for a man to destroy the light inside himself than the Darkness all around him."

Bekmambetov and Kalogridis wield myth to good effect in this first of a trilogy of films. A tasteful infusion of animation, inventive special effects (like a child seen only by the blood in his head), and tricky editing maximize the Russian film's resources. Fox Searchlight gets in on the action by adding moving subtitles which fade in and out of view or slink across the frame; they generally enhance the mood (excepting a goofy sprinkling of "No-o!"s in one scene). Stick around for the few-seconds preview of part two, which comes early in the end-credit scroll.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio

Street date: 9/9/2008

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment/MGM

Fox brings Timur Bekmambetov's Watch films to Blu-ray with stunning AV transfers. I can find no reason to complain about the crisp image (which seems sharper to me than the murky theatrical presentation in my memory), which deftly handles shadow detail and the film's visual effects and rich color palette; likewise, the lossless DTS Master Audio Russian track presents the film's soundscape at its very best advantage. The only potential complaint here is that this disc doesn't include the option of viewing the film with the splashy motion subtitles designed for the American theatrical run. Rather, the film is presented with player-generated subtitles. Frankly, this gimmick, though creative, isn't missed. A purer experience of the film is simply to leave the subtitles as unobtrusive as possible, as seen here.

The package of extras also bests DVD, adding a few new bonuses to an already special edition. Returning are two commentaries: the first an English-language audio track with writer/director Bekmambetov and the second a subtitle track presenting the thoughts of novelist Sergei Lukyanenko, creator of the source material. (So if you're good at multi-tasking, you can listen to one and read the other!) Bekmambetov isn't a gregarious talker, and the track is also edited to remove references to the motion subtitles, so it can be a bit spotty, but it's the place to go for a more detailed examination of the project's development and Bekmambetov's filmmaking process. The Lukyanenko commentary is a rare opportunity for a candid point-by-point comparison, by the author, of his novel to the finished film. Lukyanenko is generally pleased and friendly, but he doesn't hesitate to point out changes, additions, and, yes, differences of opinion: it's easy to take him at his word.

DVD presented only an alternate ending, but on Blu-ray we get 7 Deleted Scenes (28:42 with "Play All"), all with optional commentary by Bekmambetov. The Russian-produced "Making of Night Watch" (39:03) makes a return appearance. This is the most easily digestible making-of feature, and it provides plenty of comments by cast and crew interspersed with footage from the set. Though it's not terribly different from the American EPK style, this feature provides a novel insight into modern Russian film production.

"Characters, Story, and Subtitles" (5:06) is a domestically produced featurette with Bekmambetov explaining the series and the thinking behind the dynamic American subtitling. "Night Watch Trilogy" (3:27) also finds Bekmambetov, in a different Fox-produced interview, talking a bit more about the series. Comic Book Still Gallery (8:44) is actually a video-based sampler of a Russian Night Watch comic, running through panels as score plays underneath. Poster Gallery (1:20) uses the same format to display various promotional designs.

We get the Theatrical Trailer (2:26) and previews for Fox Blu-ray titles Day Watch, Alien vs. Predator, From Hell, The Fly, Man on Fire, and Sunshine. Lastly, the disc is encoded for D-Box users. Here's the best way to own a distinctive action-horror franchise and prepare for a planned third film.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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