Eastern Promises

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

(2007) Thriller (Focus) Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Donald Sumpter, Jerzy Skolimowski, Tatiana Maslany (voice), Sarah Jeanne Labrosse, Tereza Srbova, Raza Jaffrey, Aleksander Mikic, Mina E. Mina, Josef Altin, Shannon-Fleur Roux, Mia Soteriou, Alice Henley, Christina Catalina, Elisa Lasowski. Directed by David Cronenberg

Over the years we have been treated to many fine films about the Italian mob. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola have given us insight to that criminal element, giving us anti-heroes we could root for in a certain sense. We were shown how fiercely loyal these men were to family, and while they were also ruthless killers we nonetheless found ourselves able to identify with them.

But that was another era and another mob. These days it is said the most ruthless and vicious criminals in the world are Russian and while there are those who might argue the point, I think most would agree they are at least in the running.

When a young woman in labor comes into a London hospital, midwife Anna (Watts) thinks nothing of it at first; she’s not the first woman to come in with complications. But she dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby and a diary with a restaurant business card in it. There is no other identification on her and the woman spoke little English, being of an Eastern European background that is similar to Anna’s, a second generation immigrant to the UK.

The restaurant puts her in touch with its genial owner, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) who promises to find relatives of the baby that she can turn it over to. However, all isn’t as it seems; turns out the restaurant is the front for Semyon’s criminal organization and the young girl’s diary, which is in Russian and is being translated by Anna’s Uncle Stepan (Skolimowski) incriminates Semyon and his reckless son Kirill (Cassel). Semyon orders Kirill and Semyon’s driver and cleaner of messes Nikolai (Mortensen) to claim the diary and silence by whatever means those that have come in contact with the baby.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. The late Roger Ebert had the right of it when he said that this isn’t a movie about how, but about why – and you won’t see the “why” coming (although some snarky critics claimed that they could – personally I don’t believe ’em). What you SHOULD know is that Mortensen, in his second collaboration with Cronenberg, may have given the performance of his career here. His research into the role is impeccable and he is so thoroughly believable as the tattooed mobster that you probably won’t recognize him at first.

Mortensen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, gives this very complex and layered character a lot of nuances, from the ironic cock of his head to the ghost of a smile that sometimes wafts over his face. When the time comes for violence however, Nikolai is more than equal to the task – a fight scene in a bath house (in which Mortensen is completely naked) is one of the most well-choreographed scenes of that nature ever filmed. By itself it’s worth the rental fee.

Watts, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to Mortensen’s performance. A very capable actress herself (as she showed in last year’s The Impossible) for whatever reason her character is vapid and somewhat colorless; perhaps it is simply by comparison to Mortensen’s character who is thoroughly intense and interesting, but her performance here is utterly forgettable. I have to chalk it up to the writing since as I said earlier Watts is an accomplished actress in her own right.

We also get some fine performances from Mueller-Stahl and Cassel. Both have primarily made their careers in Europe, although Mueller-Stahl has an Oscar nomination to his credit and has done his share of American movies. Cassel, mostly known to U.S. audiences for his part in the abortion of a sequel to The Crow is one of the biggest stars in France and he shows why here.

The movie goes through some sections in which the plot gets a bit muddy, particularly in the middle third. The ending is a bit strange as well, although given that this is a David Cronenberg film that shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. What I love about this movie is that it is so matter-of-fact about the Vory V Zakone (Russian for thief-in-law, roughly the equivalent of a made man) and their violence that sometimes crosses the line into sadism. These are men for whom these acts are a daily part of life and there is a certain amount of fatalism that is very Russian. While this isn’t up to the standards of The Godfather (which is a very high standard indeed) this certainly may be taken as the film that does for the Russian mob what Coppola’s classic did for the Mafia.

WHY RENT THIS: Reinforces the banality of evil. Magnificent Oscar-nominated performance by Mortensen and Cassel and Mueller-Stahl offer tremendous support.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Watts doesn’t quite hold up next to Mortensen. Jumbled in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence in the film, as is not unusual with Cronenberg’s films, is graphic and disturbing. There is also a good deal of foul language, sexuality and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shot entirely in England, this is the first film Cronenberg has made completely outside of North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the tattoos and the significance of the figures therein. Some of the material is covered in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $56.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie was just shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Epic

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