David Cronenberg's previous offering, A History of Violence, was hailed by many as a work of genius and made it to the mainstream paper's top movie of 2005. But I thought the original story in the graphic novel form was far superior, as he injected his own take for the second half of the film, which earned William Hurt an Academy Award nomination for his role as a gangland boss. Those in tuned with Cronenberg's works will know that his movies are usually warped in certain ways, but with A History of Violence, and now Eastern Promises, it seemed that they have become easier to grasp, and perhaps even more mainstream in its appeal.
In some ways, Eastern Promises is like a watered down version of Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece The Godfather. Set in London and involving the Russian mob, an organized crime family headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) runs a restaurant front, while engaging in illicit activities from drugs to prostitution. Like Don Corleone, Semyon too has a hotheaded, impulsive yet inept son in the vein of Kirill, played by Vincent Cassel, in a role with suspect sexual orientation with his chumminess with Viggo Mortensen's Nikolai, who provides protection of sorts as their trusted underling, an enforcer type character for every crime family, serving as the multi-purpose driver.
Embroiled unwittingly into the crime underworld is Naomi Watts' Anna, a midwife who delivers a baby from a dead teen, whose diary she finds and becomes incriminating evidence on Semyon's activities, as her amateurish sleuthing brings her straight into the lion's den. Thereafter the movie takes two arcs, one involving the retrieval of the diary, which provided some background story to the mysterious girl and her plight, reminiscent of movies like Lilya 4-ever and Your Name is Justine, while on the other arc, the crime syndicate stuff proper, with deadly betrayals, revenge and deceit. Who says there should be honour amongst thieves, especially when it involves blood?
While Watts' arc and character get reduced to supporting status, what makes a winner here is Mortensen's portrayal as the mysterious man of few words. Mortensen reunites with Cronenberg from their earlier collaboration, and his character's cool, calm and measured in his responses, a stark contrast to Kirill, and is no wonder the favourite "son" of Semyon as he knows is the man with the plan. Of interest here is how tattoos also play an important role with rituals in the initiation rites into the Family, and it's not just the Yakuza who boast these body art. As one character puts it, the tattoos on your body tell your whole story, so they command a great deal of respect.
Cronenberg continues the tradition of showing unflinching bloody violence, so in your face that you'll probably be numb to it all by the time the much talked about public baths scene comes rolling along. While Mortensen and Maria Bello performed bedroom gymnastics that required her to bear all in the earlier Cronenberg film, it's Mortensen's turn here to be in the buff as he engages in a no holds barred fisticuffs. A relatively short sequence, but one which proved pivotal in turning the story over its head. Some might hate this turn of events as it reeks like a copycat of the multitude of Hong Kong crime movies, and might even be seen as a cop out, but I thought it still made decent plot development, and well worth it for the final shot in the movie, which seemed so ironic.
Eastern Promises is still a highly watchable movie despite, as I mentioned earlier, Cronenberg's films having more mainstream appeal now, so don't go looking out for major shock and awe. While about half the dialogue is in Russian, I can't help but to close my eyes and imagine that Mortensen is speaking Elvish, while the rest of the cast have marbles in their mouths. Fans of Mortensen will probably not want to miss this (well, besides watching him perform in the buff), with him as a character sharing the same amount of intensity as his earlier role in A History of Violence.