Making good on 'Promises'
David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen team up to give us a violent, thrilling look at the Russian mob.
By Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Last update: September 20, 2007 – 5:17 PM
Viggo Mortensen and Armin Mueller-Stahl in Focus Features' Eastern Promises - 2007
The relentlessly intelligent, stunningly violent "Eastern Promises" unfolds in London neighborhoods controlled by Russian crime families trafficking in drugs, sex and murder. It's an illicit subculture of hard, silent men like Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a stoical driver and fixer whose prison tattoos reflect a brutal criminal career. The film is suitably devious, surrendering its secrets gradually, like Russian nesting dolls whose exteriors, pulled apart, reveal different figures inside.
Shifting identities have been a central theme in David Cronenberg's films, and here, re-teamed with his star from 2005's "A History of Violence," he explores the idea in the context of a sophisticated, intriguing mob thriller. His latest offering evokes the emotional themes, and power, of "The Godfather."
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a nurse who enters this subterranean world when a 14-year-old Russian girl she is attending dies in childbirth. Concerned that the unidentified girl's newborn will go into foster care unless relatives can be found, Anna takes the young woman's diary to her own uncle, a Russian émigré, for translation. One look at the book is enough for him to warn her to mind her own business.
Anna persists, tracing the girl to a cozy old-world restaurant whose grandfatherly owner Semyon (Armin Muller-Stahl) hosts banquets of czarist lavishness. Semyon sends her away with promises of help, and on her way she crosses paths with the mysterious, coldblooded Nikolai and his boss, Semyon's volatile playboy son Kirill (Vincent Cassell).
The relationship between the men is complex. Nikolai keeps a watchful, protective eye on Kirill, a hotheaded but weak eastern European synthesis of Fredo and Sonny Corleone. Kirill simultaneously admires and resents his babysitter. He overgenerously insists that Nikolai sample the wares when they visit whorehouses, and demands to watch while he does. Nikolai, ambitious to rise in the mafia, impassively complies. The men's fraught rapport is further complicated because Semyon scarcely disguises his preference for the capable ex-con over his own prodigal son.
As Anna's inquiries come uncomfortably close to the family, Nikolai is assigned to dissuade her. Mortensen's performance is so masterfully subtle and Cronenberg's direction so canny that it's impossible to guess whether he'll add her to the collection of corpses he has already dropped in the Thames.
Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in Focus Features' Eastern Promises - 2007
There's not a false moment in Steve Knight's exquisitely plotted script, which gives Watts much more than the usual stand-around-and-look-worried woman's role. The film is taut with the threat of violence, and when it erupts, it's hand-to-hand, intimate, inelegant and unflinchingly savage. In a scene that redefines screen fights the way "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" rewrote the rules for car chases, two knife-wielding goons enter a sauna to attack Nikolai, who although naked is far from defenseless. The show-stopping struggle will leave viewers feeling excited and shocked.
Cronenberg's fascination with the fragility of flesh and bone has spawned some indelible images, from the exploding heads of "Scanners" to the mangled bodies of car accident victims in "Crash," but this grimly realistic crime story raises the bar higher still. It's a mouthful of blood with a vodka chaser.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186