Thursday, 25 October 2007

Eastern Promises - Review by Joseph Wren

Eastern Promises – Review by Joseph Wren
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Certificate: 18
Released: October 26

David Cronenberg is going through his gangster phase. The Canadian filmmaker, who has always been fascinated with man’s relationship to science and machinery, has now walked away from gadgets and perverse experimentation in favour of a much more timeless conflict – man against man. At the very heart of Cronenberg’s work has always been the issue of identity, and 2005’s “A History of Violence” was his ultimate cinematic revelation. In that film Viggo Mortensen played a man with a mysterious past in organized crime, and Cronenberg has instinctively paired with the Lord of the Rings star for a second outing. Here Mortensen is an icy Russian gangster, who, like his “History of Violence” character, harbours a staggering truth.

In Eastern Promises, the blood flows early and often. Out of the gate a couple of corpses are graphically produced, one of which is a teenage girl who dies while giving birth to a baby girl. Curiously good-natured midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) retrieves the dead mother’s diary, with intentions of finding a family for the newborn baby. Written entirely in Russian, she brings the diary to the Russian restaurant whose business card is tucked inside, unintentionally getting her involved with the Vory V Zakone – the Russian mafia. Kirill (a flamboyant Vincent Cassel) is the loose cannon heir to the family throne, held by gentlemanly restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Nikolai (Mortensen) is the mysterious driver who specializes in erasing lives and is caught in a serious moral quandary when the hard truth from the diary is revealed. Nikolai and Anna strike up an odd flirtation, and soon things get complicated on all sides.

Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai is one hard motherfucker. With slicked back hair, jet black shades, a body covered in biographical Russian gangster tattoos and a unique talent for extinguishing his cigarettes, Nikolai is the kind of badass that other badasses dream of becoming. And in one soon-to-be infamous bath house scene, a completely nude Mortensen takes on two knife-wielding Chechens in one of the most brutal and eye-popping fight scenes to be witnessed; an achievement made even more impressive by the fact that all of the actors performed their own stunts.

Set in London, Eastern Promises explores the new wave of gangsters – gone are the glory days of the Goodfellas - Vory V Zakone is the new criminal underworld whose stories and anti-heroes could re-boot the gangster genre much beloved by movie goers. Mortensen’s tense and controlled performance is nothing short of astounding; his transformation into Nikolai is utterly convincing and terrifying, with an unexpected hint of eroticism.

With its abrupt ending, Eastern Promises is steady-paced thriller that hits the wall before running off the rails. While the final act of “A History of Violence” was thrilling, the film feels unnecessarily hasty and somewhat predictable, with little time to savour the interesting story and contemplate the moral complexities of the main characters. Nonetheless Eastern Promises is yet another fine accomplishment by Mortensen and Cronenberg, who prove to generate highly interesting pictures together. Here’s hoping that Cronenberg sticks to his guns for a little while longer.

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