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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 19.72%
Average: 7.04%
Pretty Bad: 5.63%
Total Crap: 8.45%

6 reviews, 35 user ratings

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Eastern Promises
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Another rigorous autopsy from Cronenberg."
5 stars

At first glance, it may seem out of character for director David Cronenberg — master of twisted body-consciousness films like 'The Fly,' 'Dead Ringers' and 'Crash' — to take a tour of the Russian underworld of London in his new film 'Eastern Promises.' But it doesn’t take long for this supposedly “conventional” Cronenberg outing to announce its place in his portfolio.

It begins with blood and slime, the primordial fluids of life and death, and coasts for the next 90 minutes on our unease. Though the remaining violence is sparingly parcelled out, we know we’re in a universe where live flesh has ink or a price on it, and dead flesh is subject to rude post-mortem depredations in the freezer of a restaurant.

Part of the plot’s motor (via the tight script by Steven Knight, author of Dirty Pretty Things) emerges into the film coated in both fluids — a baby born to a teenage Russian ex-pat prostitute who died in childbirth. (The film’s title refers to the way she and others like her are lured to London by the mob with promises of big things, then put to work in the sex trade.) Anna (Naomi Watts), a doctor at Trafalgar Hospital, delivers the baby and finds the girl’s diary, which contains sensitive information about various players in the local vory v zakone (“thieves-in-law”) outfit. This includes avuncular mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his impetuous, not-as-closeted-as-he-thinks son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

In another film, Anna would be the lead character, spending perhaps five episodes of a BBC miniseries to get to the bottom of the Russian decay. Cronenberg, however, pretty much dismisses her as a necessary plot agitator — the sand in this oyster — and focuses on Kirill’s sardonic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). In their previous film together, 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg and Mortensen explored the nightside of a kind man with a dark, grisly past. Here it’s almost the reverse, as the outwardly unfeeling Nikolai develops shadings of compassion. The two movies are bookend pieces, and Mortensen makes Nikolai even more disturbing when traces of humanity sneak through his contemptuous façade — when Nikolai tells Anna “You belong in there, with nice people,” he may be thinking how dangerous it is to be so naďve about life’s underbelly, and how comforting it must be. He wouldn’t know.

As in all Cronenberg films, God (or the devil) is in the details — the way, for instance, Semyon brings out a cake for a woman’s 100th birthday party, and she pays him and the cake no mind, focusing on the accordion player — she’s not fooled by Semyon’s charm, she knows what he is. Eastern Promises is an inquiry into various kinds of scars; the whole business with the tattoos, which Russian thugs get in prison to denote where they stand in the food chain, was added to the script by Cronenberg and Mortensen, and a turning point comes when Nikolai receives his coveted star tattoos on his chest, signifying total loyalty to the vory v zakone. Long live the new flesh. The most celebrated and notorious scene, of course, involves the attempted removal of Nikolai’s tattoos by two Chechen assassins while Nikolai is clad only in a towel, and soon not even that. Leave it to Cronenberg to redefine the fight scene, so often glossed over in routine action flicks, but here lingered over to emphasize the grasping pain and effort of hand-to-hand combat.

Like Elias Koteas’ character in Crash (“Prophecy is ragged and dirty,” he said to his own tattooist, “so make it ragged and dirty”), Nikolai is an illustrated man whose body is a guidebook to a dangerous subculture. A development near the end makes him perhaps too readable, but Mortensen finishes his role here exactly as he did in A History of Violence, sitting at a dinner table and contemplating his life of brutality and what comes next. Here, though, Nikolai has rejected the trappings of civilization — a woman, a baby — to spend more time in the shadows with shadowy men.

'Eastern Promises' completes a trilogy begun with Cronenberg’s underseen 'Spider,' a trilogy dealing with family shattered by secret horrors. It is Cronenberg firing on all cylinders, probing the imperfect human machine underneath the fleshy surface, meticulously detailing his findings.

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originally posted: 09/22/07 23:59:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/28/20 Vincent Cassel When Viggo Mortensen rapes Tereza Srbova to “prove” his character wasn’t gay,, so bru 5 stars
9/13/17 morris campbell kinky but interesting 4 stars
4/04/11 fartvenugen overrated, unrealistic, pooptastic 2 stars
3/17/09 MP Bartley Simmers with quiet menace. Watts and Mortensen outstanding. 4 stars
11/26/08 Shaun Wallner Well made. 5 stars
10/23/08 mr.mike The climactic twist did not do the movie justice. 3 stars
10/03/08 K. Sear Not the best Cronenberg has done, but still an enjoyable film. 4 stars
6/18/08 daveyt enjoyable evolution of the genre, nothing earth shatteringly new, but enjoyable! 4 stars
5/19/08 Jack Sommersby Boring story, boring characters, and boring direction. 1 stars
4/24/08 Quigley Expertly acted and directed, but the mob has seen better stories thatn this. 4 stars
3/07/08 Weaver Terrible movie, the violence was tame and sparse, twists were predictable, bland characters 2 stars
3/03/08 mb Bloody ugly ... junk movie 1 stars
3/01/08 Ivana Mann Uncompromisingly brutal and riveting.One of Cronenberg's true cinematic triumphs! 5 stars
3/01/08 R.W. Welch Grim Russian mob flick has dandy knife fight. Not much else. 3 stars
2/03/08 ad Brooklyn gangsters pretending to be russian mafia 1 stars
1/27/08 Jefenator Less Cronenberg quirkiness than usual. Viggo is excellent! 4 stars
1/27/08 cootango very boring, waste of 2 hrs. This is no triller. 1 stars
1/27/08 razztek Awesome movie - Cronenberg does it again - well worth your time 5 stars
1/11/08 reptilesni This is what good film making looks like. 5 stars
12/31/07 Monday Morning Way overrated by reviewers on this site. Very average. 3 stars
12/25/07 action movie fan does not keep it,s promises-boring consfusing tale-skip it 2 stars
12/16/07 Alice Thought it was boring,superficial and VERY overated like all cronenberg movies ! 2 stars
12/13/07 William Goss Save for a balls-out fight scene and Viggo throughout, less than the sum of its parts. 3 stars
11/25/07 Jose Luis Instant classic. Cronenberg´s best movie, awesome! 5 stars
10/18/07 Brad It's Cronenberg...'nuff said. Great stuff. 4 stars
10/15/07 Keystra Williams Viggo BETTER get nominated for this. Awesome. 5 stars
9/30/07 errantvine A master picture and an absolute must 5 stars
9/27/07 Orangina As a Russian, I expected little but was pleasantly surprised. 5 stars
9/25/07 C. Chappell Really dark, really creepy, really good, 5 stars
9/24/07 justin it is obvious that no russians were involved in the making of this film... and obvious why 1 stars
9/23/07 damalc very good, but i did not like it as much when they revealed viggo's motive 5 stars
9/23/07 Private In the minority finding this generic and uninvolving. 3 stars
9/22/07 Ole Man Bourbon I liked it, but I prefer the weird Cronenberg to the nuanced Cronenberg 4 stars
9/16/07 JEANY SANCHEZ the best movie 5 stars
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  14-Sep-2007 (R)
  DVD: 23-Dec-2007



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