“Stay away from people like me.”
Rated R. Out on DVD. Directed by David Cronenberg, Starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen & Vincent Cassel.
Eastern Promises is a movie that, while getting pretty positive reviews, did not garner much publicity when it was released in theaters earlier this year and it kind of got lost in the shuffle. The clunky title is probably partially to blame for that, and it isn’t exactly a high-budget blockbuster, but just because it didn’t get much hype doesn’t mean it is not worth seeing. Reuniting the director and star of 2005’s A History of Violence, the film is about what happens when a woman (Watts), leading a normal, everyday life, crosses paths with the Russian mafia (the vory v zakone) in London.
The plot is pretty straightforward, and nothing out of the ordinary, although anything involving the Russian mob is usually interesting, and the parts about tattoos and their importance to the men involved were particularly cool. However, there are really only two reasons to see this movie — first and foremost being the major action scene in the movie. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but Cronenberg has crafted what has to be one of the more memorable fight scenes in movie history and this film is worth seeing for that sequence alone. It’s pretty fucking cool.
The other reason is for the stellar, powerful, performance that Mortensen gives as Nikolai, a soldier in the mob with a mysterious past. Mortensen, light-years removed from The Lord of the Rings, is intensely scary while at the same time hinting at the humanity within his character. His presence is impossible to ignore in every scene he’s in, and he absolutely carries the film. Cassel, as Nikolai’s captain and the boss’ son, is nearly as good, somehow making an otherwise violent, pathetic, sniveling character sympathetic. Watts is not too memorable and her character sort of fades in importance as the movie goes on, while Armin Mueller-Stahl is requisitely intimidating as the boss of the family.
Ostensibly a thriller, Eastern Promises is, outside of the centerpiece action scene, devoid of truly thrilling moments. There wasn’t a lot of tension and most of the movie is understated and slow. I also found that for a man who has risen to the top of the Russian underworld, Mueller-Stahl’s character does not make very intelligent decisions, and it made the film seem somewhat contrived and unbelievable. However, these flaws can’t hold a candle to a scene at the end of the film that seems so out-of-place and unnecessary that it almost ruined the entire movie for me. If you’ve seen it, chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie is still worth watching, but it falls well short of being a great film, and only Mortensen and that one scene elevate it out of mediocrity.