Two years ago, director David Cronenberg teamed up with Viggo Mortensen on one of the best movies of the year, “A History of Violence”. The film featured suspenseful storytelling, sublime, understated acting, and shocking violence in its tale of organized crime.
This year, Cronenberg again teams up with Mortensen in one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, “Eastern Promises”, a film featuring suspenseful storytelling, sublime, understated acting and shocking violence in its tale of organized crime.
Same movie? Hardly. Cronenberg shifts from the bucolic Midwest to the cold, hard streets of London in Winter, where the focus is not on a family man with a secret, but the inner workings of the Russian Mafia operating out of England. Where “A History of Violence” puzzled you with its intrigue, “Eastern Promises” is more in line with more traditional mob fare such as “The Sopranos” or “The Departed”, just dealing this time with Russians instead of Italians or Irish gangsters.
The shift of locale for a mobster movie is another factor in making this a movie that may seem somewhat recognizable at first sight, but with a disconcerting unfamiliar twist. London is not New York or Boston, and the actions of the mobsters, police, and bystanders reflect that fact. The biggest difference is that there is not a single gunshot fired in the movie. But don’t be fooled, this is a graphically violent film, with razors and various knives creating enough gore to make Ron Zombie happy.
In fact, there is one particular scene that may become the standard to which all other knife fight scenes in future movies shall be judged. At least I think so…as there were a few times during it that I was diverting my eyes somewhat from the bloodshed. This was not stylized, glamorized, highly choreographed martial arts type fighting…it was dirty, grunting, grappling-for-your-life realism; reminding me of the kitchen fight between Tony Soprano and Ralph Cifaretto.
The fine German character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl paints an intimidating picture as Semyon, the patriarch of this particular branch of the infamous Russian Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood. Power and menace are crystal clear in his blue eyes when he first meets up with nurse/midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) at his plush Trans-Siberian restaurant. Anna has come to try to find the identity of a young Russian girl who gave birth in her hospital, and then died. Her irascible Russian uncle Stepan was unwilling to help, so Anna takes the diary of the young girl to Semyon, as the restaurant’s business card was found on the girl’s body, along with a diary.
Semyon promises to translate it for Anna so that she may learn the nearest relatives of the orphaned baby, but in truth, he’d rather have it destroyed, as it may or may not be incriminating towards his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Kirill may be the crown prince of the family, but he is spoiled, quick tempered, and not exactly intelligent. Aiding Kirill and Semyon is the mysterious and charismatic Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen), who serves as their driver, confidant to Kirill, and “fixer” for the family, taking care of unpleasant tasks such as body disposal.
These duties eventually put him in contact with Anna, as she and her family barter with the Devil in order to obtain the information Anna desires, while still keeping herself, her mother, her uncle, and the baby safe. Nikolai has concerns of his own, continuing to try to rise in the power structure of the family, while dealing with treachery and threats from the Chechen mafia to their London interests.
This is much more of a single storyline account of gangsters, as opposed to some of Scorsese’s finer work which are more concerned with telling you about the mafia itself. Thusly, the timing is a bit more frenetic and focused, and the tension throughout more acute. Unlike “History of Violence”, the characters are a lot more straightforward as to who they are and what they are willing to do, making the confrontations more viscerally horrifying.
Special recognition must go out to the dialog coaches. Many of the scenes with Nikolai, Kirill, and Semyon are spoken either in Russian, or a mix of Russian and English that still requires subtitles, and the accents are flawless, quite an accomplishment considering Cassel being French, and Mortensen a Danish-born American.
It is the two “stars” that truly set this movie apart. Naomi Watts once again shows that she has no interest playing off her tremendous beauty, and is bound and determined to be viewed as a great actress. Mission accomplished in this film. Anna is a complex, sometimes frightened, sometimes immensely brave woman, and Watts delivers another stellar performance.
But this film belongs to Viggo Mortensen, and he carries it off as effortlessly as some of the great leading “manly men” of the past like Bogart, Cooper, or Grant. Nikolai’s main talent is his sphinx like persona; he does not want anyone to get through to him, consequently everyone simultaneously trusts him but are weary of him. His friendship and loyalty to Kirill seems genuine, as does his empathy with Anna’s plight. His is a truly enigmatic character, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the days of the aforementioned Bogart; a character who you do not know is good or bad until the very end of the film, and even then you still aren’t sure.
Mortensen has been overlooked thus far in his career when it comes to winning major awards, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother him much at all. Be that as it may, he may want to have a tuxedo picked out for next March, as this performance is certainly worthy of a nomination for Best Actor.
Is the film worthy for nomination as well? Perhaps. There are a few little holes in logic and plot that stop it from being considered great, but it is certainly a riveting thriller that will end up on many critics’ Top Ten list for 2007, myself included.
My Rating: Brian Sipe (3 ½ footballs).
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