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David Cronenberg’s career has been highlighted with thrillers, both brutally gruesome and thought provoking. When a director like that sets his sights on a crime drama, I expect something quite stunning – after all, crime dramas have created some of the most memorable moments on film of all time. But Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises lacks both crime and drama, and winds up as a long-winded mess on screen as excellent actors, lackluster themes, and preachy dialog combine in a most unpromising film.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a London midwife who turns detective as she tries to find a home for a baby who was born in her hospital but was orphaned as her young mother died in childbirth. Anna finds a diary written in Russian, inside of which is a business card for a restaurant that happens to be a front for the vory v zakone – a kind of Russian mafia.
Unlike the organized crime organizations typically glorified in film, the vory appear to be a more civilized form of organized crime. Ignore the fact that they judge their members by the prison tattoos they carry and that a power struggle is going on that was initiated by the grisly slitting of a member’s throat (which calls for retaliatory throat slitting). This is a civilized organization that seems more interested in talking than anything else. Lots and lots of talking, a lot of which feels useless and unnecessary. I’m not saying every crime drama needs to be filled with tommy-guns blazing, but more than one or two instances of actual crime in the “crime drama” might be nice, especially when a power struggle is taking place.
Part of that power struggle is due to the wild antics of the boss’s son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel) who is initiating the family’s driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson) deeper into the family. At first Kirill seems like the regular Vincent Cassel role, letting him play the despicable villain without any consideration. Later in the film Cassel gets the chance to expand the role sizably, however, showing a rarer softer side for the actor. Mortenson, on the other hand, is his typical self: and by that I mean this is an actor completely immersed in his role. You get the impression Mortenson throws himself as deeply into Nikolai as he did his Lord of the Rings character Aragorn, especially as he speaks his Russian as fluently as he did his Elvish. This is an actor who believes in transforming himself for his part, and here he plays the most soulful criminal you’re bound to see on screen. It’s just a shame his dedication is unrewarded by the final product.
Most of Kirill’s dealings occur behind the back of Kirill’s father, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is somewhat busy dealing with Anna’s inquiries about his restaurant and that baby. Yeah, remember the baby we talked about three paragraphs ago and then promptly forgot about? That’s kind of the same treatment the movie gives the plot device, which all but disappears for a large section of the film, returning at a convenient moment to contribute to the film’s resolution.
As director, Cronenberg doesn’t shy away from violence in the few instances it comes into play. There is one raw portrayal of sex that isn’t hinted at but placed on the screen for all to see. Slit throats gape open and bleed profusely, and the one sizable melee to show off Nikolai’s physical power is done partially in the nude as bodies are slammed around viciously inside a sauna. It’s a fight that’s likely to make some men as embarrassed as excited when it arrives. While the fight is almost barbaric in nature, showing the brutal dedication of the men involved, it’s too small an exhibit in a movie that’s supposed to be about this unrelenting underworld power.
Otherwise, this is a movie that takes four highly skilled actors, hands them massive amounts of dialog, but does nothing to really support the intrigue or tension that dialog is supposed to build. Watts shows concern for the dead mother and abandoned girl, Cassel presents himself as a psychopath, and Mortensen makes it evident he wants to be a compassionate person while being a hardened killer, but the story spaces these emotions out so far apart there’s nothing to mesh them together. Towards the end of the film, plot twists come out of nowhere and hardly even pay off, making the whole movie feel like an arbitrarily assembled mess. Considering the talent involved, this is a highly disappointing film that only promises to be forgotten quickly, and possibly to put the audience to sleep to fulfill that promise as quickly as possible.