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Strange creatures: Khabensky and friend in Night Watch.

Unorthodox Horror
By Ann Morrow

Night Watch

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

In the opening sequence to the convolutedly mythic Russian blockbuster Night Watch, the forces of good and evil do battle as if they were Orcs and knights in an outtake from The Lord of the Rings. But fear not, fantasy, sci-fi, and dark-arts fans: Itís only a prologue, and the film quickly skips 1,000 years ahead to 1992. And then to the present time. And also to a dimension called The Gloom, which might be a time of day, or maybe a state of mind. To keep all of the filmís elements and influences in order is near impossible, anyway, so just let director Timur Bekmambetovís febrile imagination wash over you like a stream of consciousness (yes, thereís surrealism afoot, and hand-drawn animation and video clips, too).

The forces of good and evil are called the Others, and according to the ancient truce, they must keep each other in check in the human world. So the dark forces keep watch by day, and the good forces keep watch by night. But in 1992 Moscow, recently jilted Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) doesnít know anything about Bekmambetovís cosmos, and so he seeks the help of a witch to get his wayward wife back. The benign- looking crone (or is she an Oracle? Only Neo would know for sure) mixes him a potion that knocks him for a loop. And while heís knocked over, a tiger cub flies past the kitchen cabinets and a gnome barks orders about the croneís hands, and then. . . . When Anton comes to, he is one of the Others. But which kind of Other, he doesnít know yet, and neither does the audience (or the other Others). But thatís just level one of the mysteries that keep the crazy-quilt narrative jumping like a scalded black cat.

Structurally, Night Watch resembles Sin City in the way its rapid-fire, and seemingly unrelated, vignettes build upon each other like a pyramid of cards. Itís also violent, in a graphic-novel way, and incorporates an eye-pummeling amount of bizarre imagery to make each vignette hallucinatory. But the plot is surprisingly coherent, and much more humanistic than Sin Cityís base instincts. As an Other, Anton encounters a 12-year-old boy who is being hunted by vampires for reason unknown, and a young woman doctor who has been cursed by an unknown nemesis. And if Anton isnít able to deduce the whys and wherefores, the gathering vortex hovering over Moscow will open up and . . . but no one wants to go there because of the really evil-looking swarms of bats that form the vortexís material manifestation.

And did I mention the shape-shifters, the oddly involved rock band, and the tragic vampire girl who wanders the streets like a coffeehouse waif? The neat trick that makes Night Watch more than just an art-film extravaganza for fan boys, however, is that all the effects (the on-the-cheap CGI is admirably imaginative) and pop-culture, dark-side references are in the service of a quest story, one in which Anton will discover the consequences of his evil deed in the witchís kitchen. And by that point, any viewers who have not yet fallen by the wayside of the filmís visual and allusive thickets may find themselves in keen anticipation of the next installment, Day Watch.

Shoot for It

16 Blocks

Directed by Richard Donner

It took me several long minutes to recognize Bruce Willis as the lead character of Richard Donnerís latest flick, 16 Blocks. Of course, I knew this was a Willis vehicle when I received the assignment, but still, could detective Jack Mosley, a disheveled, alcoholic has-been, complete with beer belly and gimpy leg, really be the star of Die Hard and so many other action flicks?

Once my senses regained equilibrium, and I got comfortable with the fact that Willis was, indeed, Mosley, I had to marvel at how well this actor plays downright end-of-the-road despair. Without benefit of major makeup or prostheses, his ability to transform into a decrepit veteran of the NYPD says a whole lot about his acting, or maybe, a little about the kinds of choices weíve come to expect from him. Willis, alone, is enough reason to see what is essentially a cat-and-mouse tale involving police corruption, mixed with the well-worn white-cop/black-felon buddy-flick formula.

That said, 16 Blocks, which also stars Mos Def as petty criminal Edward Bunker, a key witness set to testify before the grand jury in a case involving, well, police corruption, is fairly solid entertainment. Donner deftly sets up the premise of the aging, loser cop, no doubt kept on the rolls through some fluke in union contracts, who gets more than he bargained for while transporting Bunker to the courthouse. In the blink of an eye, or more aptly, in the aftermath of the first shoot-out, Mosley makes a life-changing decision that puts him at odds with his former partner Frank Nugent (David Morse), not to mention a whole lot of other men in blue. The result of that decision puts both Mosley and Bunker at great risk, as the pair attempt to make it to the grand jury in time.

As with most Donner films, there is hardly a dull, or stationary, moment. Bullets fly, with the chief twist being the variety of settings in which this can happen. Letís just say the sweatshops and laundries of Chinatown have never been shown to such effect. In the rare moments between gunshots and the chase, Mosley and Bunker form an inevitable, yet believable, truce, with an undercurrent of the omnipresent question, ĎCan I really trust this jerkí? Defís Bunker is a nonstop babbler who may or may not be retarded, just as he may or may not be a coldhearted criminal, but itís a refreshing change of pace from the usual street-smart black half of this kind of buddy picture.

The last 40 minutes of the story, in which the duo attempt to make the courthouse, seems, in real time, much longer. The continuity and lighting departments seem to have had problems with things like making the courthouse appear as if itís in daylight. People in New York seem not to notice things like two bloodied individuals, one of whom holds a sawed off shotgun, walking among them.

Despite moments that stretch credulity, 16 Blocks manages to tell a good story, with interesting characters, and that in itself is sadly refreshing. Then again, we get to see yet another performance in which David Morse, who in his youth was typecast as the angelic, usually victimized protagonist (St. Elsewhere), plays a downright menacing presence, and that too is pretty darn fun.

óLaura Leon

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