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Moscow setting is perfect for moody vampire saga

''Night Watch" is the first installment of a planned three-part saga taken from a series of popular Russian sci-fi novels, and in the last two years the movie has conquered its homeland, out-grossing ''Spider-Man 2" and ''The Lord of the Rings" at the box office. Naturally, it's now in pursuit of American domination, which seems imaginable since the film is a rumbling stew of lucrative sagas past: a little ''Star Wars" and a little ''Matrix," with a pinch of those ''Underworld" pictures and more than of whiff of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's claustrophobic style in ''Delicatessen" and ''Alien: Resurrection."

''Night Watch," though, is unique, regardless of how familiar the tale might sound.

The trilogy promises a showdown between literal Darkness and Light. (Nothing stays figurative for long in this movie.) ''Night Watch" gets going in modern Moscow eons after the two sides have called a truce. Based on the frightful lack of sunshine in this movie, I'm giving Darkness the upper hand. But most of the screen time is devoted to Light.

We're told in the movie's preamble that Moscow's underground teems with vampires, shape-shifters, and sorcerers called Others. The movie explains how one of those vampires, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), winds up working for Night Watch, an underground peacekeeping force that keeps humans safe from the blood-lusting dark side.

Director Timur Bekmambetov begins the story without much promise, putting on screen a standard medieval war sequence.

But when we actually meet Anton in the second scene, he's a lovelorn schlump visiting an old sorceress to have a curse put on his cheating fiancee, who's pregnant with another man's baby. Her spell-binding produces one of the movie's most visually outlandish sequences. The old lady whips up a blood-and-vodka cocktail, and gets to work on the cheating lass. Just in time to stop the witch's miscarriage spell, a Night Watch team arrives. The child is saved, and the film jumps ahead 12 years, where the real action begins.

This child is not just any child. He's the Great One. So according to the film's omniscient narration, he is the figure who can tip the balance in the Darkness-Light war. He just has to choose a side. Both sides want him, of course, and they spend the entire movie trying to get to him first, although how much greatness resides under one Prince Valiant haircut remains to be seen. (Of course, Americans will know he at least has great taste because we see him watching ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer.")

''Night Watch" protracts the search and eventual showdown by introducing handfuls of characters, then abandoning them to introduce more. My favorite orphan of the plot is the Dark Other who finishes singing at a sold-out arena, walks off stage, and immediately starts helping catch the Great One. Part of her strategy involves holding a jar of blood out the window of her car to lure the bereft vampire Larisa (Anna Dubrovskaya), who's been telepathically calling out to the boy.

The story comes in wads and blocks, which is stressful. Fear arises that you've missed something, when really it's probably a matter of detail not making sense. Back stories come and back stories go, nearly always accompanied by a piano twinkling cheesily on the soundtrack. I'm sure ''Night Watch" support groups have already formed to explain what I don't get. It all feels spectacularly random, anyway, like an elaborate throat-clearing for the sequels, which I'm still curious to see.

Plot particulars aside, Bekmambetov gives us much to behold. ''Night Watch" is shabby chic, with hints of Russia's great silent-cinema past. One of the film's best creations is a Matrix-like place where Others can go to find other Others. Audaciously, it's called the Gloom. Where the Matrix could be an immaculate, boundless landscape, the Gloom looks like a dirty, bug-infested cul-de-sac, and scenes set there would play wonderfully without sound. The camerawork buzzes like a housefly, landing for a nanosecond on lids, handles, flashlights, noses, subway maps, and raw meat.

''The Matrix" movies were compulsively arranged to the point where the slightest flash of humor would shatter the whole unsmiling pantheistic enterprise. ''Night Watch" is a godless pigsty, by comparison.

It's also the first apocalypse-minded franchise that's earned its downbeat mood. The action, for starters, is post-Cold War, post-Chernobyl, post-perestroika. Darkness is so much a part of the Russian psyche it must be nice to see a local movie try to put its hand toward the Light.

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