Eastern Promises (2007)
Release Date: September 21st, 2007 MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Cronenberg Actors: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Jeanne Labrosse, Sinead Cusack, Tereza Srbova
avid Cronenberg, having previously helmed a comparable tale of bloodshed in 2005’s “A History of Violence,” weaves his Russian Mafia story with extra doses of slashed throats, seedy characters, and an unclad Viggo Mortensen. Trying hard to mimic the sincerity and graphic appeal of “The Godfather,” while adding occasional helpings of dramatic revenge and redemption, “Eastern Promises” is incredibly entertaining but, sadly, short-lived. So much potential lies in the crafty construction of the dashing, cool, and baleful lead character, yet the film resolves abruptly, in part due to its succinct running time, generating stunted satisfaction.
At her hospital, midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) discovers the diary of a young girl, who leaves a newborn baby behind when she dies. In her attempts to get the mysterious Russian book translated, Anna comes across the deceptively composed Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who has insidious ties with the Eastern European crime syndicate Vory V Zakone – and may be involved with the pregnant girl’s death. It’s not long before Semyon’s brash son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his menacingly arcane chauffeur, Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), must decide with whom their allegiances reside as bodies pile up and secrets become uncovered.
Mortensen’s performance is outstanding, expanding upon – if not topping – his previous turn in “A History of Violence.” Both characters carry sordid pasts and troubled consciences, but Nikolai exudes a certain slickness with his snazzy black getup and unflinching, piercing gaze. He is the ultimate dark-robed, gangster henchman, grabbing the viewer’s attention like a knife to the eye (which, of course, happens during the course of the film). From the moment he is introduced, subtleties and foreshadowing elude to a deeper and more complex character than what is so suavely displayed on his calm exterior. The role is definitely related, if only in spirit, to Mortensen and Cronenberg’s former collaboration.
If violence begets realism, then “Eastern Promises” is as real as it gets. Cronenberg’s penchant for delivering imagery unlike any seen before is certainly evident here, this time in the form of a bathhouse fight sequence that transcends artistic brutality in modern cinema. It’s not quite violence for violence’s sake (though it comes ever so close), but it’s a powerful tool for commanding seriousness nonetheless. Such brazen displays of carnage from an unflinching camera seem destined for cathartic release, but when none is truly offered, audiences may have to imagine their own at the highest point of the excessiveness. It’s a series of grand builds to additional sequences that are curiously absent; the real rampage against villainy likely hides just beyond the end credits.
The dark and brooding world of the Russian Mafia makes for thrilling movie material – and the jumping point for a contemporary gangster epic. At a mere 100 minutes, however, Cronenberg’s tense foray feels greatly truncated at the climax. Before the savage power struggle can come full circle, the film is done, tempting audiences to want more, as if this was just the first part of a trilogy – except that it’s not. Still, fans of the genre and Cronenberg’s style will be delighted to see just how far the director pushes the boundaries of strong-arm tactics to tell an intriguingly morbid tale of deception, revenge, and blood-soaked survival.
– The Massie Twins