Know in advance that this film's dialogue is in Russian (with English subtitles), and that at the end you might not be completely sure of exactly what happened during the previous two hours. With that in mind, you should be set to take part in the rip-roaring first segment of a planned trilogy about life and death in contemporary Moscow, among the members of the Night Watch and the Day Watch. That translates -- sort of -- as a battle between good and evil, between vampires and those who hunt vampires.

I only say "sort of" because, as hinted, I'm not completely sure what this thing is about. But that didn't keep me from becoming totally immersed in, and very much enjoying it.

There are a couple of beginnings: One, a thousand years or so ago, tells of the day two opposing armies of "others" -- part normal people, part something else -- met for a vicious battle, ending in a truce meant to keep the world in balance.

Jump to 1992, and we're introduced to Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), an "other," a seer who has visions of the future. He's consulting a witch who tells him that his wife has left him for another man and, by the way, she's pregnant and, oh yeah, it would be a good idea to kill this child before it's born.

If you haven't buckled your theater seat belt by that point, you'd better hold on, because the film quickly erupts into a wild, creepy, explosion of MTV-style editing and a series of knockout visual effects.

After a jump to 2004, in the calm that follows that sequence, before you can catch your breath, a young boy -- a "victim," we're told -- hears what Anton refers to as "the call," which the boy must follow.

Follow he does, when something unseen says to him, "Come to me." And in a wonderfully inventive manner, those subtitles (which have certainly kept some people away from foreign films) actually become a kind of character. The subtitles keep appearing in different parts of the screen; they move, they dissolve into wisps of smoke, they become LARGE when a character emphasizes a word in Russian.

As the boy follows the sound (which obviously comes from something bad), Anton, purportedly on the side of good, follows the boy. Which leads us to finally being introduced to a couple of vampires, who can appear and disappear at will, and seem to have issued the call in order to lure the boy to becoming their dinner.

But this is no ordinary vampire movie. In fact, there's nothing ordinary here. The dark and crowded interiors and exteriors could at any time be the setting of startling and frightening visuals that -- sorry -- are beyond my powers of description. The blood in the film flows quite freely, and though some of it comes via bared fangs, other times it's slowly being drunk from cups. Most of the violence is tamer than would be expected, though matched up with the film's dark and dirty set design, it can also be off-putting.

Before long, more characters come bounding in to the ever-complex plot. Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) is first seen riding in a subway train with -- watch out, here comes another eye-popper -- a vortex over her head. And, you know, it makes perfect sense to me that a vortex signals both the presence of a curse and the possibility of the end of the world. All of that is explained, but don't waste much time on explanations, because before you know it, Anton is given a partner to help him on his vampire hunt: an owl named Olga. And Olga, by the way, turns out to be anything but your everyday, run-of-the-mill owl.

That's pretty much what you can say about this film. There's an old bit of Greek philosophy about "expecting the unexpected." Call it a clich & eacute; if you want, but Night Watch is filled to the brim with it. It's also a full-fledged piece of kinetic cinema, loaded with high-energy impact. Oh, there are quiet passages to be found, any one of which might be followed by a gotcha moment.

Remember now, this is only Part One (Part Two, titled Day Watch, opened in Russia on Jan.1, and the conclusion, to be filmed in English, will be released in 2007). But before it comes to its satisfying stand-alone end, there are sufficient explanations of "others," realizations that tornadoes are vortexes (keep watching the Russian Weather Channel), and revelations about just why the call was being sent out to that boy.

This is an audacious and outrageous movie, an unexpected fantastical treat to come out of the usually far more staid Russian cinema. There's no American release date yet for Day Watch, so I've been checking out for cheap flights to Moscow.

Night Watch; Rated: R; Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; Starring Konstantin Khabensky, Mariya Poroshin

  • or