Reviewed by

Burton Carlson III

David Cronenberg is the man, and he is on a big-time roll!  He is succeeding in making more accessible (meaning more popular) films with high-profile stars, without compromising his distinctive style and auteristic sensibilities.  (Between “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” “Crash,” and “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg is responsible for some of the most provocative and original movies of the last decade or so.) Cronenberg’s latest project, the crime thriller “Eastern Promises” reteams him with his “A History of Violence” leading man Viggo Mortensen, and the result is a terrific film.

“Eastern Promises” does not have the same epic scope or operatic vision that “The Godfather” movies have. But thematically, the comparison begs to be made, as “Eastern Promises” is a brutal, ultra-violent mobster movie in the same vein, centering on a Russian crime family in contemporary London.  The family aspect of the story was such an important aspect to the appeal and success of “The Godfather” saga, and it’s also crucial to “Eastern Promises.”  Here, an old ruthless patriarch is struggling to come to terms with the fact that his son is a no-good, drunken weakling (by Mafioso standards), favoring an “outsider” named Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who rises slowly but surely through the crime family organization.  Even while “Eastern Promises” is an ensemble piece, having six sharply-defined characters, the movie is dominated by Mortensen, who is a terrific actor giving one of his most impressive performances to date. 

The film begins with two violent and bloody scenes that grab the audience by the throat. The movie then doesn’t let us go for the entire 90 minute (!) runtime.  The violence in the film is both gruesome and intense, perhaps because most of it is executed with knives rather than guns, and often hand-to-hand, thereby personalizing

the fights. The film contains at least three unbearably creepy and intensely violent scenes that will likely make viewers squirm, and will linger in their memory long after the viewing.  This is not stylized violence, mind you, and even the dark and ominous London (set at night) is menacing.  In all grotesque ways, “Eastern Promises” is a terrific movie, well worth seeing.

ARMSTEAD’S SECOND:  Having seen many a mob flick, one the underlying themes in American based mob whackings always seemed to be ‘It’s just business’.  Well this simple rule doesn’t seem to apply to the Russian mob as it’s almost always personal.  ‘Business’ I believe consists of standing back a ways and shooting somebody.  Personal is pulling out your blade and gutting some dude until you can literally feel the life slowly slipping away from them, and that, if one is to believe ‘Eastern Promises’ is how the Russian mob functions.

Naomi Watts portrays the plucky but barren midwife Anna who delivers the distressed baby of a doomed fourteen year old Russian girl who leaves nothing behind except an extremely tragic diary written completely in Russian and a business card to a Russian restaurant.  This leads Anna to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) the septuagenarian owner of the restaurant and head of the most brutal crime family in London.  Semyon seems fairly desperate to get a hold of this diary, allegedly to protect his son, the drunken Kirill (Vincent Cassell), but it goes a bit deeper than that.  From here we are exposed to two separate worlds, the world we live in and a world we had best avoid.  All presented in astonishing graphic detail.

I’ve been a Cronenberg guy since my older brother took me to see ‘Scanners’ back in 19 whatever as his way of ‘babysitting’.  Maybe a young impressionable boy shouldn’t see a guys explode or watch some dudes pulpy pupils pop out of his eye sockets but it sure was pretty damn cool to see at the time.  Some thirty years later David Cronenberg is still able make an audience squirm in its respective seats with his well established gift for the visual medium of film.  Coupled with the outstanding performances of Watts, Mortenson, Cassell and most notably in my opinion Armin Mueller-Stahl who usually plays kindly grandfather types but here is a kindly, but menacing, evil, wicked grandfather type who wouldn’t think twice about slitting your mothers throat, Cronenberg’s masterful filmmaking flair makes ‘Eastern Promises’ easily one of the best movies of 2007 thus far.

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