Eastern Promises Movie ReviewOctober 19th, 2007 by Michael Kwan
When I saw the trailer to Eastern Promises, I didn’t think anything of it. The storyline didn’t sound all that interesting, because it simply talked about some young girl’s diary and the attempt by some criminal types to retrieve it. Big deal.
When I dove a little deeper into what this David Cronenberg movie had to offer, I started to get more and more intrigued. I learned that the “criminal types” in the film were none other than the Russian Mafia. Looking at the MPAA rating, I discovered that Eastern Promises is “Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity.”
Strong brutal and bloody violence. While I enjoy intelligent films as much as the next intellectual, sometimes I just need an escape from reality and violent movies seem to do that for me, particularly those with plenty of explosive action, guns, and fist fights. That’s why I enjoyed Terminator 2. That’s why I grew up on so many cheesy Jean-Claude Van-Damme movies. And so, I decided to give Eastern Promises a whirl with the expectation of some excellent fight scenes loosely dangling from a wire thin plot.
The hour-and-a-half experience that ensued was not what I expected. It was so much more.
The performance by Viggo Mortensen — who plays the Russian family’s driver and “cleanup” guy — is absolutely electric. I’ve always loved movies that involved the very calm, cool and collected psychopath. You see, Viggo’s character (Nikolai Luzhin) is the hired assassin and one of his key duties is taking care of the corpses professionally. This involves removing the fingertips, for example, so that the dumped body has no fingerprints. The one scene that depicts this procedure being done to a frozen cadaver is a little disconcerting, to be sure, but it shows the utterly realistic and dark underbelly of the Russian mob.
In terms of pace, things progress quite slowly. David Cronenberg was very methodical in his approach and thus, you don’t get the shaky camerawork of Bourne Ultimatum or the cheesy comedy of Rush Hour 3. It is perhaps best to approach Eastern Promises the same way that you’d approach The Godfather.
Getting past the thick Russian accents can be a bit of a challenge. According to IMDB, Mortensen took this role very seriously:
To prepare for his role, Viggo Mortensen traveled alone to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Ural Mountain region of Siberia, spending weeks driving around without a translator. He studied the gangs of the vory v zakone (thieves in law), read books on Russian prison culture and the importance of prison tattoos as criminal résumés, and perfected his character’s Siberian accent and learned lines in Russian, Ukrainian and English. During filming, he used worry beads made in prison from melted-down plastic cigarette lighters and decorated his trailer with copies of Russian icons.
The tale progresses very well with Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) playing a midwife who oversaw the birth of a young girl. The mother, a 14-year-old girl, died during childbirth, but left behind a diary written in Russian. Anna seeks the help of her feisty Russian uncle Stepan and the owner of a Russian restaurant (there was business card on the mother) to translate the diary; it just happened to turn out that the latter is the head of the Russian Mafia. Contained inside is a story that could cause much trouble for the mob.
It’s all very dark, cold, and calculated. I was expecting more fight scenes, but the single bathhouse fight made up for it. Severely brutal and utter gruesome, the naked battle (yes there is male nudity) is not for the feint of heart. I only wish there was more closure at the end of the movie… if you watch it, you’ll know what I mean. There is one scene that could have been added near the conclusion.
Eastern Promises may not have received much attention from the press and it didn’t operate on the hugest of budgets, but it is an absolutely enthralling thriller and drama that you will not want to pass up. Simply spectacular in its presentation of the Russian mob, family politics, and the morality of life and death.
4.5 Stars Out of 5
Filed under Arts and Entertainment.