David Cronenberg's expertly simmering Eastern Promises may be a blood(shed) relative to A History of Violence, but this time you'll be doing more double takes over the plot twists than the imagery.
Just as the Russian Mafia tells stories through tattoos, it could be said that Eastern Promises is told through bloodshed. The splatter begins almost immediately, in the tone-setting opening shot, but it's the ensuing scene that properly introduces the story. A 14-year-old girl named Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) is shown staggering in a London pharmacy, blood hemorrhaging down to her bare feet. She is in labor, as we soon learn, and only her baby will survive the birth. But the midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), handling Tatiana's case is determined not to let the young girl's story die then and there, especially after finding her diary. Written entirely in Russian, the diary contains many secrets, all of which are clearly not meant to be meddled with by anyone who values her life. Anna knows this, and yet she proceeds to have her Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) translate the diary. It directs her to the notorious Russian Mob syndicate Vory V Zakone, led by its aging boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his heir-to-the-throne son (Vincent Cassel) and their driver/"undertaker" (Viggo Mortensen). And by the time Anna reaches the end of her vigilante investigation into the Zakone, Tatiana's death isn't the only mystery solved.
Viggo Mortensen has a serious complexity complexwhich is to say, the uncomplicated-character role is of zero interest to him. Never before has Mortensen portrayed a more complex character than Promises' Nikolai, nor has the actor ever performed at such a high level. In fact, so multilayered is Nikolai that Mortensen's spot-on Russian accent will be taken for granted, and rightfully so. Because by the end of the movie, Nikolai will have been exposed and transformed the most, and Mortensen is game each step of the waywhether it entails cold-bloodedness, sensitivity, vulnerability or full-frontal nudity (while dodging knives, no less). Mortensen also shares this movie's version of chemistry with Watts, whose Anna finds herself simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by Nikolai. As Anna, Watts turns in one of her more restrained performances to date, leaving the spotlight vacant for Mortensen's showier effort to shine. In contrast, Cassel (Derailed) doesn't have a restrained bone in his body in Promises, and it works. One of the most versatile supporting actors of today, Cassel plays Kirill over the top, conveying a hotheaded, spoiled and ultimately inept prince of the Zakone brotherhood.
David Cronenberg is every bit as important a filmmaker as the other "legends" of his generation, but because he has never directed a blockbuster per se, he remains every bit as unknown as another fellow genius named David--Lynch, that is. However, his recent work, while still uncompromising, has been more genre-classifiable and thus reached larger audiences. His latest is a straightaway crime mystery, but there is never anything conventional in how he fleshesor, ahem, de-fleshesout a movie. In a story crafted like a novel by writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), Cronenberg once again highlights the secrets lurking among us as only he can. The result gets underneath our skin and stays put, but this time it's not all about the shocking images. While there is blood aplentyprimarily, it seems, at each of the plot pointsas well as the much-buzzed-about Viggo Mortensen nude fight scene, Cronenberg puts his stamp on the storytelling maybe more than ever. Most other directors would let the sun in occasionally on a tale that is perpetually pitch black to begin with, but Cronenberg works best in the dark and doesn't pretend to cater to seekers of the light (or the lite)he hasn't for 40-plus years. And if not for his masterful pacing in the final act, the script might've been guilty of trigger-happiness with regards to the plot twists.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.