Friday, January 4, 2008

Eastern Promises

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jerzy Skolimowski

Running Time: 100 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

It's something we've known for a while but Eastern Promises just further confirms it: Viggo Mortensen is one hell of an actor. He's actually such a strong, intimidating actor that his performance comes close to overshadowing and overpowering this film, making it difficult to care about the other characters half as much. This movie is all about Viggo…and the violence. It's something director David Cronenberg is quick to remind us of in every single frame of this film, sometimes in more excruciating detail than we feel comfortable watching. As thrilling as it is sometimes, there may be some confusion as to what audience this film is for. The excessive male nudity is likely to turn off (straight) male audiences, while the brutal violence and gore would cause the female audience to hit the stop button on the remote. As is, it's a very good, absorbing crime film that benefits greatly by having Cronenberg at the helm.

Previously a cult horror director, Cronenberg has lately taken baby steps toward the mainstream, or at least as close to the mainstream as someone like him can get. Reuniting with Mortensen, whom he directed in one of 2005's best films, A History of Violence, he has has this gift for depicting violence in the harshest, most realistic way possible. It was present in even his earliest work. That's definitely on grand display here, even if the film is somewhat clich├ęd and gives us a take on the mob genre we've seen before.

I can't help but laugh just a little when I see it on many year-end top ten lists because it really is just a one-trick pony, as entertaining and over-the-top as it may be. But at least it's a film of substance and can't be categorized as "Hollywood fluff," a term I've been using a lot these past couple of months to describe the unusually high level of lightweight studio offerings. No one could ever call Cronenberg's films "lightweight." Plus, it earns bonus points for containing what's easily the most exciting (and uncomfortably homoerotic) fight scene of the year. You'll never want to enter a men's locker room again.

Anna Kitrova (Naomi Watts) is a midwife at a London hospital who successfully delivers the baby girl of a hemorrhaging teenager who ends up dying on the table. She leaves behind no identification other than a diary, which contains a business card, that leads her to a restaurant fronting for the Russian Mob. The owner, Semyon (played with subtle menace by the great Armin Mueller-Stahl) offers to translate the diary, which is written in Russian. He obviously isn't doing this out of the kindness of his heart and is hiding something I probably shouldn't reveal in this review.

Unwise, emotional decision-making puts Anna in over her head and she finds herself face-to-face with Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen), the chauffer of Semyon's insane, drunk son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). What's so amazing about this partnership (you couldn't call it a friendship) between Nikolai and Kirill is how Nikolai not only puts up with this guy, but knows exactly how to handle him, showing more patience than anyone else would in that situation. Even when our patience for his behavior starts to run out, Nikolai becomes even calmer and more tolerant, defending his unstable actions to Semyon. There are weird, creepy homosexual undertones to their relationship that the film teases but mercifully doesn't fully explore, even when we increasingly fear it will.

This Kirill guy is definitely off his rocker and many times during the film you're not sure whether to laugh at his actions or cringe in fear. Casell (who's done strong supporting work in films like Derailed) chews into this role like it's a three-course meal and more than holds his own scene-for-scene with Mortensen. No small achievement. Aside from a twist late in the film which is a surprise but hardly a shock, the script mostly follows the predictable pattern for these types of films and doesn't contain a lot of twists and turns. But it's worth mentioning that the person I was watching this with and I were taking bets as to which characters would survive until the end of the film. Both of us were way off.

It's tough to believe the Viggo Mortensen we see here is the same man who played Tom Stall in A History of Violence two years ago. This film isn't anywhere close to being as psychologically deep or complex as that near-masterpiece, but Mortensen's performance is just as subtly powerful, in a far different way. As I was watching the brutal, bloody shower fight scene I was wondering to myself why he was having such a tough time finishing these guys off. Then it occurred to me that this guy isn't the invincible fighting machine that Tom Stall was.

It was tough for me to let go of that notion, just as its tough to shake any character Mortensen has played throughout his career. I'm sure I'll have the same problem with this one. It seems in the past couple of years he's really turned that corner and shot to the top of the list of our best actors, mastering the ability to believably slide into any role. Cronenberg gives him center stage again here and he owns the film with his trademark quite intensity. He radiates a calmness that's scary because you're always aware of the possibility that he could explode. He deserves a Best Actor nomination for this.

Naomi Watts, on the other hand, doesn't fare as well but that's only because Steve Knight's screenplay requires Anna (as well as her hotheaded Russian-born uncle, played by Jerzy Skolimowski) to make head-scratchingly stupid decisions in order to service the drama of the story. I didn't believe they were unrealistic decisions that someone in her similar situation wouldn't make, but it did make it more difficult to root for the character. Caring more about the villain than the heroine didn't help. The movie doesn't force the issue of some kind of a deep relationship between the two lead characters, which was probably a wise move. Watching this though it occurred to me that Watts just might be one of my favorite actresses because even when the material isn't up to her talent level she's always compelling to watch. There are a lot of beautiful movie stars but I could only count on one hand how many are also great actresses. She is.

With its heavy gore (even the opening scene is brutal) and male nudity this film would have been pure B-level camp if anyone but Cronenberg was behind the lens. With all the crazy stuff that goes down here this really should pass as a comedy (at least on paper), but he finds a way to not only make it dramatic, but at times terrifying. Cronenberg's career has gone in an interesting direction because, unlike a Sam Raimi, as he's edged closer to the mainstream he's found a way to appeal to more audiences without sacrificing any of the elements that brought him there. This time he just didn't have a strong enough screenplay to support him but it should be very interesting to see where he decides to go next. You can say what you want about Cronenberg, but he's no sell-out. Eastern Promises could stand as a shining example of standard material being elevated by a great director and terrific performances to appear more important than it actually is. The film is far from perfect but you won't be able to look away, as much as you'll want to.

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