13 February 2008

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises Doesn’t Deliver

By Kristin Battestella

With all the awards hype surrounding Eastern Promises, I decided to take a ganger. The 2007 Russian mob thriller reunites Viggo Mortensen with his A History of Violence director David Cronenberg. Unfortunately once again the duo falls short of taking the drama to the next level.

Anna Ivanonva (Naomi Watts) is a midwife of Russian decent living in London. When she delivers the baby of a 14 year old Russian prostitute, Anna becomes immersed in London’s Russian mafia underground. As the diary of the dead mother is translated, Anna meets Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the Russian don, his wayward son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and their driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) –who clearly isn’t the simple driver he pretends to be.

Eastern Promises starts off promising, with questions and answers raveling and unraveling in the first hour. Early on the film is also bloody and violent; we learn who the key players are and the vices of each individual. Cronenberg, however, was smart to keep the film’s focus on the cast and not on violence or gore.

Naomi Watts (The Ring) is acceptable as Anna. She sells the cultural divides of her character well. Likewise Mueller-Stahl’s (Shine) tough love father and mob boss feeling is creepy enough to leave no doubts as to who the villain of the piece is. Vincent Cassell (The Messenger) is also fine as the conflicted Mafioso son. But of course, Eastern Promises is really The Viggo Mortensen show. His Best Actor Oscar nomination is well deserved. His look, the broken English, the suavity in which he mutilates a body before making it disappear-the character is a complex one. Every scene had me yelling at the screen as clues are revealed about this seemingly uninvolved driver.

Mortensen is perfectly Mafioso in look and feel, but the entire mood of Eastern Promises sells the Russian underground. Subtitles are a must for the mixed English and Russian speech. Some things may be a bit stereotypical-like all the drunk Russians sipping Vodka. Unfortunately, it took me a while to figure out they were in London. We spend so much time on the Russian end of things that I thought we were there.

Despite its good, another huge miss for Eastern Promises is the ending. For such heavy subject matter and complex plot the abrupt ending and under two hour length undoes all the film’s hard work. It’s as if the entire film is all setup. Screenwriter Stephen Knight seemed to have backed himself into a corner and what was supposed to be the big twist reveal was quite obvious halfway through the movie.

As strong as Viggo’s performance is-even considering the poor screenplay-I fear that this film will be known more for his nudity than the acting. A lengthy fight sequence late in the film meant to set up the big betrayal instead turns out to be a laughing moment. Who would roll around on the sauna floor completely naked with his killers, really? Blood and male body parts everywhere. I’m sure all the lady fans of Viggo will love it, but Cronenberg should have staged and edited the sequence without all the puffs and tackles.

Graphic sex, language, and more make Eastern Promises too mature for young viewers. Strangely enough, the film is actually less violent and sexual than The Sopranos. Cronenberg had free reign to take it to the next level, but Eastern Promises is light in the essentials and heavy in the wrong the places. The DVD is also light, with only the bare bones features. Viggo Mortensen may have received the Best Actor nomination, but this is not his definitive film. Unfortunately, Eastern Promises could have been.

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