Published at: Sept. 13, 2007, 7:53 a.m. CST by merrick
Greetings AICN, MiraJeff here with a look at Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg's highly anticipated follow-up to A History of Violence.
Working from a script by Dirty Pretty Things writer Steven Knight, the film follows Anna (Naomi Watts), a mid-wife at a London hospital who takes it upon herself to become a protector of sorts to an infant whose 14 year-old mother dies during child birth. She also acquires the girl's diary in hopes of one day giving it to her orphaned daughter. When Anna brings the diary to her Russian uncle to have it translated, she finds herself getting mixed up with some shady Russian mobsters who belong to the Vory V Zakone, a ruthless criminal organization operated out of a restaurant owned by boss Semyon and his hot-headed son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Caught between his curiosity and attraction to Anna and his loyalty to Semyon’s family is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), Kirill's mysterious and intimidating driver. Interacting like brothers, Nikolai is responsible for looking after Kirill and keeping him out of trouble. He’s also entrusted to take care of the family’s dirty work, including putting cigarettes out on his tongue before cutting the fingertips off a corpse so it can’t be identified.
With Eastern Promises, Knight further explores London's nefarious underworld, the same territory he covered in Dirty Pretty Things. Likewise, Cronenberg explores similar themes present in A History of Violence, only here the director takes a more straightforward and subtle approach that ultimately lacks the depth of his last film. Eastern Promises is a very understated work with a deceptively simple story that is really the film's only flaw. Just when Cronenberg introduces a major twist that brings into question all we know about one character, he abandons it and all its dramatic potential and it becomes clear that he isn't interested in exploring that particular development so long as we know it exists. The questions it begs are sufficient enough and it’s a good thing that Cronenberg doesn’t give too many easy answers because they rob the film of its mystery and palpable tension, That said, I have to admit I found the ending too anticlimactic, especially considering I would've watched another half-hour to learn more about the affected character in question.
The performances are all strong across the board, although the only actor with any awards potential is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who does an incredible job of making a little old man seem larger than life, not to mention frightening as hell. Mueller-Stahl imbues every line reading with considerable weight, a threat veiled in every sentence. Likewise, Cassel is excellent as Kirill, a black sheep whose anger stems from his significant daddy issues. It’s a wonder Cassel is so successful at wining our sympathies for such a despicable character. One of the more riveting scenes finds Kirill insisting that Nikolai rape an underage girl in front of him to prove he’s not gay, when it’s Kirill whose sexuality is openly questioned by other mobsters, much to his father’s embarrassment.
Speaking of Nikolai, this is Mortensen's film all the way and he carries it effortlessly on those muscular shoulders of his. Having apparently followed the Brad Pitt in Fight Club weight training program, Mortensen is jacked beyond belief, like a tattooed Leonidas. His strength serves him well during a nude fight scene in a bathhouse that is every bit as mesmerizing as you’ve heard. There is no doubt it will be the stuff of legend for years to come. The fight scene kicks all sorts of ass, and mock me if you will, but I don't think I blinked once.
The violence in Eastern Promises isn’t as pretty or graceful as in A History of Violence. Instead, it feels more realistic and immediate. We feel every blade and every blow those characters meet the wrong end of, and when these characters get killed, they don’t just get their brains blown out and die right away. They fight it with every last breath in their bodies. That bathhouse scene won’t just be remembered as the time Viggo bared all, but as a vicious, bare-knuckle, balls-out classic fight to the death. We feel the Nikolai’s adrenaline rush when his survival is challenged and the suffering he inflicts as a result. It really is a timeless action sequence that is perfectly choreographed and performed. And surprisingly, the body count is lower than you’d think for a Cronenberg movie about Russian mobsters.
In spite of that scene’s ass-kicking awesomeness, Eastern Promises isn’t perfect. For one, Anna’s storyline just wasn’t all that interesting and I found her character too passive. Watts does the best she can but hers is an underwritten role that rarely gives her a chance to match her co-stars’ gravitas, of which she is considerably endowed. The ending was unsatisfying, as was the closure (or lack thereof) it provided. It just seemed like Cronenberg introduced several really interesting ideas in the third act but kind’ve
hangs them out to dry. I was also underwhelmed by the Vory V Zakone themselves, who didn’t live up the badass reputation the film generously establishes. It seemed like most of the violence occurs at the hand of people working for the Vory V Zakone rather than the members of it. I suppose the point is that they don’t have to be violence because so long as they’re around, the mere threat of violence always lurks, but aside from a few kicks from Mueller-Stahl, no one in the Zakone actually does anything violent and they come off a little soft in my book.
But these are minor problems that overall, don’t impact the film or its effectiveness. It’s very, very good and it’s certainly up there with Cronenberg’s best it’s lacking a certain something I can’t quite put my finger on (likable characters maybe?) and personally it failed to live up to A History of Violence, though to be fair, I considered that the 5th best movie of 2005. Eastern Promises had the potential to be great but in the end, it doesn’t take advantage of its intriguing setup and it fails to capitalize on the unpredictable twists Cronenberg so expertly disguises in the first place.
I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at Mike Cahill’s King of California, a film that just might feature Michael Douglas’ best performance since Gordon Gekko ruled Wall Street. After that, keep your eyes peeled for reviews of The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Into the Wild, The Last Winter, Lake of Fire and Reservation Road. ‘Til next time this is MiraJeff signing off…