Eastern Promises

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Rating: R

Starring:
Naomi Watts as Anna
Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai
Vincent Cassel as Kirill
Josef Altin as Ekrem
Mina E. Mina as Azim
Aleksandar Mikic as Soyka
Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse as Tatiana
Lalita Ahmed as Customer
Badi Uzzaman as Chemist
Doña Croll as Nurse (as Dona Croll)
Raza Jaffrey as Doctor Aziz
Sinéad Cusack as Helen
Jerzy Skolimowski as Stepan
Tatiana Maslany as Tatiana’s Voice (voice)
Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon

Special Features:
Secrets And Stories: See how Director David Cronenberg Brought the Screenplay to Life in the Dark and Forbidding Streets of London.
Marked For Life: Director David Cronenberg Reveals the Hidden History Behind Russian Tattoos as Well as Their Complex Symbolism and Unique Visual Storytelling.

Other Info:
Widescreen (1.85:1)
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
French Language
French and Spanish Subtitles
Running Time: 101 Minutes

Synopsis:
The following is from the DVD cover:

“Viggo Mortensen and Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts star in this electrifying thriller from critically acclaimed director David Cronenberg (‘A History of Violence’). Criminal mastermind Nikolai (Mortensen) finds his ties to a notorious crime family shaken when he crosses paths with Anna (Watts), a midwife who has accidentally uncovered evidence against them. Their unusual relationship sets off an unstoppable chain of murder, mystery and deception in the explosive film.”

“Eastern Promises” is rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity.

The Movie:
Less than five minutes after the start of Cronenberg’s follow-up to “A History of Violence,” we’re treated to his trademark bloodletting in the form of a dapper man in a barbershop having his throat sawed through with a straight razor, an incident which will be explored further later. It will be almost an hour before we’re shown a similar gaping throat wound, as Eastern Promises mainly deals with a pregnant teen who shows up in a pharmacy bleeding and gives birth before dying, leaving midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a British woman whose Russian father recently passed away, to find out what happened to the girl using her diary to find her relatives.

Like “No Country for Old Men,” the film revolves around the relationship of three men, all Russian mobsters Anna encounters while trying to find the baby’s relatives: Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai is a driver rising up through the ranks, whilc Armin Mueller-Stahl is the boss of the family and Vincent Cassell is his wildly out-of-control son Kiril who sees Nikolai as a threat to his position, and he does everything he can to humiliate the driver and keep him in his place.

Certainly there are thematic carry-overs from “A History of Violence” in that it once again deals with a regular person trying to navigate their way through a world of crime and violence. Although the body count in the Coen Brothers’ movie is significantly higher, the deaths in Cronenberg’s film leaves more of an impact due to the brutality and attention to realistic and graphic detail. There are also similarities that can be drawn between the way Watts’ character inadvertently gets involved with the Russian mob and Josh Brolin’s induction into the violent world of Mexican drug-dealers.

The script for Cronenberg’s film by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) isn’t particularly strong and is filled with a lot of information that doesn’t help the story, like the sprinkled facts about Anna’s past, but at least the relationship between her and Nikolai doesn’t go in the direction some might expect. It might be good to know in advance that the movie takes place in London, because it’s not exactly obvious even with an early shot of the Thames. I spent much of the movie thinking it was set in Eastern Europe since every character except for Watts spoke Russian.

Eastern Promises does look great, as one might expect from a filmmaker like Cronenberg, who has a keen eye for creating incredible shots, but other than a handful of scenes, it has serious problems trying to maintain one’s attention, especially after the initial scene of violence. After that, the film settles into a slow-paced dialogue-heavy film that looks wonderful but delivers very few truly memorable scenes. The one exception is the one scene that seems typically Cronenberg, which has Viggo being attacked in a bathhouse by two assailants who he fights completely in the nude, a scene that mirrors the climatic scene at the end of History. By that point, the brutality of the fight seems to be inserted solely to win back the Cronenberg fans who are getting bored, but it seems out of place in what’s become a character-driven story.

Through most of the film, Viggo seems to be channeling Ed Harris’ baddie from “History,” but it’s a good role for him, while Cassell and Watts give performances along similar lines to their past roles, little more, little less. The most impressive performance comes from the always great Mueller-Stahl, who is menacing in a way that never involves him raising a hand or a weapon, but simply with his commanding presence which keeps his son and everyone else in line. Some of the more interesting scenes explore the relationship between the three men and how Nikolai uses Kiril’s flaws to make headway with his father, eventually being given a full role within the family.

While this isn’t a terrible movie, compared to “A History of Violence” or any of Cronenberg’s earlier films, it’s a huge disappointment, since it seems like he’s holding back and only letting loose because he feels an obligation to include the trademark nudity and gore for which he’s known.

The Extras:
There are two bonus features included on this DVD:

Secrets And Stories – This is your standard “making of” featurette. They discuss how the Russian mob getting a foothold in London became news while they were shooting the movie. There is also talk of the casting, Mortensen’s performance, and the script by Steven Knight.

Marked For Life – This featurette talks about the tattoos worn by the Russian Mob and their significance. Mortensen is also seen getting his temporary tattoos for the role.

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