Eastern Promises (18)
Like Martin Scorsese, who appears to have found his 21st century muse in Leonardo DiCaprio, David Cronenberg looks to have latched onto Viggo Mortensen as his collaborator-of-choice.
Unlike Scorsese, however, Cronenberg finds himself somewhat adrift within the gangster milieu of Eastern Promises – a TV script given the big screen treatment in which Mortensen takes the lead as a Russian mobster in London.
Though its starts as it means to go on – a man sitting in a barber’s chair has his throat cut – such a bloody and brutal opening immediately offers up comparisons with the best of Scorsese (Goodfellas, Mean Streets). In terms of gangster chic this one doesn’t even come close to Scorsese’s weakest (Casino).
An international cast of Brits, Germans, Poles, Gauls and Americans fills out this nasty tale of modern underworld violence. The Krays’ dictum of “we only kill our own” seems to bleed through the proceedings, until a young woman stumbles through the gloom to naively interfere with the day-to-day murderous deeds of a Russian mafia boss.
Naomi Watts is Anna, an idealistic nurse who makes it her duty to find the family of a young girl who died after giving birth. The girl’s diary hints at her links with a Russian restaurant and its quietly sinister owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
Soon Anna has announced her intentions and is under scrutiny by Semyon, his unhinged son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and bodyguard-cum-henchman Nikolai (Mortensen), the latter a laconic, tattooed Mr. Fixit looking for a boost to the big time.
What’s more the restaurant is a front for people trafficking, prostitution, gang war and murder. And Anna, whether she likes it or not, is right in the thick of it.
While there are flashes of brilliance throughout Eastern Promises – and with Cronenberg one would not expect anything less – it consistently fails to emerge as anything more than a big-budget TV movie.
While he manages to avoid presenting yet another clichéd portrait of crime-ridden London by concentrating on back streets, urban grime and litter-strewn alleyways Cronenberg still comes up with a sub-Scorsese effort.
The film has a Sweeney-esque feel that gives it a retro look and style that seems at odds with its up-to-date subject matter. What’s more neither Watts nor Mortensen nail their characters with any real veracity, and Cassel’s pop-eyed bully boy is another in his gallery of freaks and weirdos. He’s done so many he can do it in his sleep.
If Eastern Promises has one stand-out sequence it is a three-hander between Mortensen and two assassins in a Turkish bath. Needless to say it gets very bloody very quickly with Mortensen indulging in some close combat a la 007 while absolutely starkers.
It’s the most courageous moment yet in a career that has seen some fine work. Eastern Promises does not offer him the best opportunities but Mortensen is never dull, even if the script lets him down.
Star rating: ***