Like a bat out of cyberspace, Night Watch blazes into American cinemas to prove that homely Russia can produce a pixilated-vampire-superhero, rock-and-roll, Matrix-style thriller that’s up there with the genre’s most exhilarating and ridiculous. The director, Timur Bekmambetov, hails from music videos and commercials, and his tricks are all secondhand. He opens with one from column Eisenstein (a battle montage in which the medieval armies of light and dark face off), one from column social realism, and three from column Wachowski Brothers–Underworld–Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But the modern globalized action cinema is a smorgasbord anyway. What matters is that Bekmambetov is a whiz at mix and match, and that he gives good head trips.
The basic premise is … well, there’s nothing basic about it. See, there’s this uneasy truce between the Light and Dark “Others”: The Lights license the Darks and keep the Night Watch, while the Darks keep the Lights from infringing on their civil liberties during the Day Watch. Once in a while, a Dark gets greedy for blood and summons a juicy new victim via telepathy, whereupon the Lights track the prey with computers and a sort of Otherness empathy that requires them to drink blood, too. The Darks dematerialize and materialize and can only be stopped by a flashlight that chars their flesh. And there’s a wild card, a pretty blonde whose hair swirls over her head to signal a destabilizing vortex that threatens to usher in the apocalypse. It all comes down to a prophecy that—
Given that what kills vampires from movie to movie always changes, I think we need some sort of international conference to set the parameters. And Bekmambetov’s tendency to throw FX at you indiscriminately isn’t conducive to coherence. But he certainly has a lively palette. He juxtaposes fancy computer-generated imagery with the real, dilapidated textures of Moscow, then adds bright, almost Afrocentric splotches of color. The action goes very, very fast, the camera whooshing into a subway tunnel and smack up against the guilt-ridden hero, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), who slinks around in sunglasses looking viciously hung over in the true Russian manner. Then it goes very, very slowly as Anton enters a Dark region called “the Gloom.” (He has a great vampire-cop line when he encounters a Dark Other: “Step out of the Gloom!”)
After an owl turns into a naked woman (Galina Tunina) and becomes the hero’s tart sidekick, Night Watch runs out of invention, as Bekmambetov gets around to the laborious business of uniting the movie’s streams. And the ending is a huge letdown, doing little besides setting the stage for the sequel, Day Watch, and a third film, Dusk Watch. (Let’s hope they’re not inflated into allegory like those dire Matrix sequels.) But for a good hour and change, the film is a big toy box that teases you out of the Gloom.
Amid a deluge of pointless remakes, it’s gratifying to see one with a true raison d’être: a new take on Blake Edwards’s slapstick mystery The Pink Panther. Edwards’s film had a gaping hole in the center: Peter Sellers’s feeble, one-joke Inspector Clouseau. Surely, any modern comic actor could improve on Sellers’s listless stylings!
If you believe a single word of the paragraph above, then do I have a movie for you. No, come to think of it, even if you don’t appreciate Sellers’s glorious invention—one of the archetypal fools of the twentieth century—you’ll find the new Pink Panther an embarrassment. Steve Martin can be a delightfully spasmodic clown, but his Clouseau makes no sense. Squinching his face and lapsing into an oddly feminine hauteur, he’s an imbecile who gets everything wrong until he suddenly, inexplicably, and—more important—unfunnily becomes a Sherlock Holmesian genius. Even slapstick needs to be motivated. Sellers’s stillness, his serene confidence in his own deductive genius, generated seismic waves of chaos. Martin contorts himself in a void.
I counted two and a half solid laughs and one respectable fart joke, but the only genuine bright spots are Emily Mortimer, squinting through big glasses while tottering on spindly legs, and Clive Owen, so elegantly arch as a British secret agent that you can’t help thinking the right Bond was passed over.
The foreign film Academy Award nominee (from Germany) Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is powerfully rendered in every respect—and another testament to how bad the Nazis are for drama. The true story of a young woman who distributed flyers to turn the German people against their Führer, the film boils down to a series of interrogations in which Sophie (the quiet, luminous Julia Jentsch) first attempts to lie her way out of her predicament, and then, cornered, adopts a radiant certainty about the rightness of her cause. I couldn’t agree more with the need to stand up against Fascists, but you know the Nazi judge, a screaming skull, won’t discover the true meaning of Christmas.
The perspective is more off-kilter in the tense 1948 drama The Fallen Idol, directed by Carol Reed from a screenplay by Graham Greene, now at Film Forum. It tells the story of an illicit love affair and a death as seen through the eyes of a young boy (Bobby Henrey), the son of a French ambassador to England, whose take on what’s happening is … well, young. He sees much of the action through the banister looking down on the marble floor of the embassy foyer—a little stage over which the butler (Ralph Richardson) presides. And the ways in which he tries to protect his surrogate father is a testament to how the best intentions can breed disaster.
Night Watch isn’t the only foreign film to put a new spin on a glossy Hollywood genre. In Turkey, Valley of the Wolves: Iraq is poised to break local box-office records with a story that smacks of vigilante flicks like Rambo. The film is very loosely inspired by the July 2003 detainment of Turkish soldiers by U.S. troops, which provoked outrage throughout the country. In the film, a Turkish mercenary gets revenge by waging a one-man war in northern Iraq on the American soldiers responsible. Billy Zane (BloodRayne) plays the evil American ringleader who gets snuffed in the end.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Fox Searchlight. R.
The Pink Panther
Directed by Shawn Levy. MGM. PG.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Directed by Marc Rothemund. Zeitgeist Films. Not Rated.