Were I to tell you the summer's most awesome blockbuster action sequel involved a war over a piece of chalk, you'd laugh. But it's true. In the chalk's defense, it's called the Chalk of Fate, and it's ancient. It has the power to save humanity from its own wretchedness, and, unlike whatever is being fought over in the current "Pirates of the Caribbean ," it's integral to the plot. "Day Watch " is the equally assured, more apocalyptic second installment of Timur Bekmambetov's Russian megahit saga.
"Night Watch," the first part of this planned trilogy, introduced us to a story of vampires, changelings, sorcerers (all called Others), and Darkness vs. Light, set in post-Soviet Moscow long after the two warring sides have agreed to a truce. The Night Watch monitors the Dark Others. The Day Watch monitors the Light.
The precarious balance is tipped by the emergence of the Great Other, who in " Night Watch" was just a little tyke glued to the television set. Now he's a preteen punk named Yegor (Dima Martynov ), who's on the verge of the birthday bash that will consecrate his Greatness. Poor Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky ) is in the unenviable position of being the father of Yegor and the possible boyfriend of Sveta (Maria Poroshina ), the powerful Night Watch trainee eager to nab his son.
The central drama in this movie would be Anton's miserable attempts to wrest Yegor from the nurture of the Dark Others who've raised him. But these movies are so melancholic that no matter how much the story or the cosmos preordains reunion , the defeated tone and Khabensky's hopelessly sour face make that feel impossible. Plus, the kid digs his bad self. And after Anton is framed as a prime suspect in a major truce-threatening murder, he's forced to spend a lot of the movie trying to clear his name, while also trying to get his hands on that chalk.
Anyone looking for sleek futuristic action and production design should keep walking. The movie's version of the Matrix -- for lack of a more apt allusion -- is the Gloom (a virtual space in which Others hunt for each other). Neither immaculate nor state-of-the-art, it's a bug-infested pigsty. But Bekmambetov is an artist whose interest in capturing the unhappy Russian spirit is anti-Hollywood but hardly anti-excitement. Every sordid frame is alive -- even a still calendar photo of a soccer player wakes up to wipe off a security guard's kiss. There's a body swap that culminates in a steamy love scene. Birds explode, midair, into somersaulting warriors. Blood is sipped from a juicebox. A red sports car speeds along the concavity of a massive curved apartment building. It's simultaneously all breathtaking and hilariously matter-of-fact.
The notion of "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" as fantasy seems ironically incomplete since they're infected with a woeful realism. Even in science-fiction films, the Russian psyche can't escape its recent history into a glamorous or expensive-looking fight against apocalypse the way a lot of American sci-fi can. So the degraded nature of these movies cracks you up and makes you sad. In "Day Watch," Anton and Sveta patrol Moscow in a dirty power company truck. And when all hell breaks loose, the movie sends a Ferris wheel barreling down a crowded street as though it were Godzilla. But as a testament to these movies' action-packed despondency, the Ferris wheel is scarier.