In many ways, “Eastern Promises” is a harsh, sobering picture. But what the hell, allow me to go on about the most extreme parts first! Right from the start, there’s a botched assassination in a barbershop that’s sure to make you take notice. A bit later on, there’s a “cleaning” scene, à la Jean Reno in “Nikita” or The Wolf in “Pulp Fiction”, which will certainly shake you up (“Now I’m gonna do his teeth and cut off his fingers. You better leave the room.”) I also gotta mention the disturbing bordello scene (“Now I’m gonna watch you fuck one of those bitches.”), right?
And then there’s one sequence that’s instantly classic, that literally made me shudder, something which this jaded viewer almost never does anymore. Oh, we’ve seen bathhouse fights before; Schwarzenegger in “Red Heat” or Van Damme in “Maximum Risk”, for instance. But in both of those, the hero has one of those magical towels that never reveal his naughty bits, no matter how intense the fisticuffs get. Not in “Eastern Promises”! When Viggo Mortensen‘s character has to defend himself against two motherfuckers coming at him with knives while he’s enjoying a nice steam, there’s no time for modesty, he goes at it full throttle with his junk swinging all over the place! So, in one of the most jaw-dropping sequences in a mainstream Hollywood movie I’ve ever seen, you get both full frontal male nudity and copious amounts of bloody violence.
(Sorry, I just had to get this out. Now on with the actual review…)
On a gloomy London night, a few days before to Christmas, a young girl, no older than 14 but as pregnant as it gets, barges into a drugstore, looking like the junkie whore that she is, and bleeding to death. Rushed into a nearby hospital, she comes into the care of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), who manages to save the baby but not the young mother. Anna decides to try to find out who the unidentified girl was and, by extension, to whom the custody of the child should go.
This leads her into the hidden world of the Vory V Zakove brotherhood, a Russian criminal organization involved with, among other things, human trafficking. Naïve young women from Eastern Europe are attracted out west with promises of dream lives, but end up drugged against their will and forced into prostitution. Pivotal in such dirty matters is Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), ostensibly the owner of the Trans-Siberian restaurant, but in truth the amoral godfather of one of the most notorious Russian crime families.
“Eastern Promises” is, obviously, a gangster film, somewhere in between “The Godfather”, “Goodfellas”, “Miller’s Crossing”, “Reservoir Dogs” and, of course, “A History of Violence”, David Cronenberg‘s previous and most similar picture to this. Except that instead of an ordinary man turning out to be a killing machine, here we have a killer who gradually reveals shades of humanity. There are also primal elements that connect to the Canadian filmmaker’s filmography in general, notably in regards to extreme violence, perverted sex and body modification, the latter having to do with the quite fascinating way tattoos come into play (“In Russian prisons, tattoos tell you life story.”
The most powerful part of the movie undeniably lies in the triangular relationship between Semyon, his no-good son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and the latter’s best friend, Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen), who started out as a chauffeur for the family but is now getting close to earning his “stars”. This is something of a classic tragic play, with a father figure coming in between men who are like brothers, and the actual blood son not measuring up to the outsider… Yet it’s more complicated than that, in all kinds of interesting ways – you’ll see.
The three male leads (Mortensen, Cassel, Mueller-Stahl) are truly brilliant, and Watts is good, too, but her character is not nearly as solid. She, in a somewhat contrived way, is clearly screenwriter Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”)’s way to lead us into the sordid Russian mob underworld, the one overtly sympathetic, “normal” central character in the film. That’s fine, I guess, but a few of the action she takes, notably repeatedly putting herself in harm’s way by involving herself with these Russian gangsters instead of, I don’t know, going to the police, are hard to swallow. There’s also a third-act reveal which I feel detracts from instead of adding to the complexity of the picture. But hey, those are only nitpicks. On the whole, Cronenberg’s Christmas flick is intensely thought-provoking and affecting. Plus it’s got a butt-naked Viggo kicking ass!