“Eastern Promises” is Eastern all right, but the promising part is arguable.
Crafting a Russian mafia thriller proves easier said than done for director David Cronenberg, the man behind “History of Violence” (also brutal, also with Viggo Mortensen and also not half as good as it could’ve been). The movie starts off strong with a fast-paced rhythm, a fair amount of gore to show that it’s not joking around, and a noir-like London ambience. But by the end, it has lost the rhythm and has so overdone the violence that the only thing left is a mysterious, dark London, and frankly, we could have seen that in an “Oliver Twist” adaptation.
Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a London hospital, reads the diary of young girl who has died in childbirth and realizes that the girl was a victim of the Vory v Zakone criminal brotherhood. While trying to find out more about the dead stranger, Anna comes in contact with the very people who were responsible for the girl’s untimely demise.
This movie’s main problem is that it fails to walk the fine line between authenticity and misconceptions while attempting to portray the “real” Russian mafia. It tries to show what exactly the “Eastern” part of its promises means, but it gets carried away to the point of being offensive: It is reassuring that someone did enough research to make the Russian restaurant menu (written in Cyrillic, too!) seem believable and that they sent the characters to a Chelsea soccer game (Chelsea is owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich). The lines in Russian, thrown in every couple minutes, are still unnecessary, although they add flavor to the “foreign” appeal of the movie. It’s even OK that every single character has an accent heavy enough to break through a brick wall (after all, no villain speaks English properly these days in Hollywood). As a matter of fact, everything would have been fine if “Eastern Promises” had stopped there, but instead it tries to reveal the darkest aspects of the collective Russian mafia psyche and perpetuates three fundamental truths about Russian (pardon me, I meant to say “Eastern”) people:
1. They are homophobic
2. They are racist
3. They are very likely to have a drinking problem
On top of all that, this is not a movie for the faint of heart or stomach. As any mafia member knows, guns are far too ordinary (and noisy to boot), and a good old-fashioned throat slitting beats a shooting any day. About an hour into the film, the finger cutting that grossed you out in the beginning will seem kind of mundane, really, at least in comparison to all the other slasher violence stunts those Eastern gangsters have managed to perform in the meantime. The violence culminates in a scene that chooses to take the expression “blood bath” a bit too literally by having a buck-naked Viggo Mortensen and two leather-clad tough guys with bad intentions make a mess in a public steam bath while trying to cut each other to pieces.
Stereotyping and gore aside, the cast’s performances (excluding that of Naomi Watts, whose almost perpetually confused expression probably comes from trying so hard to match her capable costars) are solid. The air of the tough, mysterious mafia driver who might just have an ace up his sleeve next to his extra knife suits Mortensen as well as his pair of signature badass sunglasses. Vincent Cassel is great as the black sheep of the gang with personal issues as numerous as the tattoos on Nikolai’s torso. Finally, Armin Mueller-Stahl nails the role of the seemingly polite and harmless restaurant owner Semyon, whose true nature of a cold and ruthless criminal is ultimately revealed in all its chilling nuances.
If (mostly) good actors, well-created atmosphere and the occasional display of bone-crushing and throat-slitting, mafia style, were all it takes to make a good thriller, then this movie would’ve kept its promise. As it is, it still owes its viewership something.