David Cronenberg possesses one of the most unique filmographies of any director. The majority of movie-goers are probably most familiar with Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly" starring Jeff Goldblum or his adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dead Zone" with Christopher Walken. A lot of folks probably haven't seen some of his more off-the-wall films like "The Brood" or "Naked Lunch", his adaptation of William S. Burroughs' novel thought to be unfilmable. The Canadian filmmaker has spent much of his career dealing with the effects of technology on the human body and blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. All the while, Cronenberg adds in his own flair for the grotesque. The exploding head in "Scanners" has been referenced and parodied often while the image of James Woods pulling out his mutated gun hand from a vaginal opening in his stomach makes "Videodrome" an unforgettable film. Cronenberg's most recent work can easily be considered his most mainstream and accessible. His last film, "A History of Violence", was adapted from a graphic novel and was his most critically-acclaimed film, receiving multiple accolades during awards season. Cronenberg returns with "Eastern Promises", a straightforward, yet compelling, crime thriller.
"Eastern Promises" tackles the Russian mob and their presence in London. We know exactly the kind of world we are about to enter when the film begins with a man getting his throat slit in a barber shop. From there, a young girl, only fourteen years of age and pregnant, stumbling into a pharmacy and hemorrhaging blood. She's brought to a hospital and dies giving birth to a girl. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is the mid-wife who assists in the procedure. Anna's late father was a Russian immigrant, but she only has a passing knowledge of that world. Anna has recently moved back in with her mother Helen (Sinead Cusack) following a failed relationship and miscarriage. Perhaps, this is why Anna has taken the girl's plight so personally and vows to the deliver the baby to the girl's family. Anna's only clues to her identity are a diary, written in Russian, and a business card for the Trans-Siberian Restaurant. Initially, Anna gives the diary to her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate it, but he only needs to read brief passages to know enough to not get involved.
Despite his warnings, Anna continues her investigation at the Trans-Siberian and meets Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a seemingly kindly old man. What Anna doesn't realize, at first, is that Semyon is the head of a Russian crime family. She also runs into Semyon's son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a drunkard and a loudmouth, and the family's driver, Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen). Nikolai is treated like a brother by Kirill and counts babysitting him and cleaning up his messes among his duties. Nikolai is still making his bones and hopes to move up the ranks. In Italian mafia terms, he's yet to be a "made man." Semyon shows a rather frightening fascination with the diary and Anna soon finds herself in a world of prostitution, drugs, and human trafficking.
"Eastern Promises" comes from a script by Steve Knight who also wrote the similarly minded, "Dirty Pretty Things." While Scorsese and "The Sopranos" have given us a wealth of depictions of the Italian Mafia, the traditions and codes of the Russian mob haven't been explored as frequently. Gangsters have their bodies decorated in tattoos that act as biographical pictograms. The tattoos tell you where they're from, what crimes they've committed and what prisons they've been in. You aren't trusted until you have tattoos. The most prized are stars placed on the shoulder (for the mob to be close to your heart) and on the knees (so that you will never kneel). In one scene, Nikolai is grilled by Semyon and other bosses. When one boss insults Nikolai's parents, Nikolai simply and calmly agrees. He has no other family, only his fellow vor v zakone, "thieves in law." The nationalities and rules may be different, but the film doesn't exactly turn the gangster genre on its ear. "Promises" has some twists and turns, but it still manages to telegraph a few of its important points. I won't spoil things too deeply, but you can tell Nikolai isn't that bad a guy and that a happy ending is just around the corner.
What truly elevates the film to another level are the actors. The performances are all uniformly excellent. Naomi Watts continues to prove she's one of the top actresses working today. Watts proves she can bring something substantial to the table whether it's comedy ("I Heart Huckabee's"), blockbusters ("King Kong"), or a gritty film like this or "21 Grams." Mueller-Stahl should definitely be in line for an Oscar nod for his chilling portrayal of Semyon. He never has to resort to mustache twirling or other histrionics while playing the villain. In fact, he rarely ever raises his voice. On the surface, Semyon appears to be nothing more than a gentle grandfather which makes him all the more frightening. As good as they are, the picture hangs on Mortensen. He doesn't just play a character, he inhabits the role. Mortensen dons a dapper suit, a tightly trimmed hairdo and tattoos galore for Nikolai. His accent and gravelly voice feel authentic. Simply put, he's great in this movie. It's really interesting to note that none of the main Russian characters are played by Russians. Mueller-Stahl is German, Cassel is French, and Mortensen is of Danish descent.
"Eastern Promises" isn't without its share of bloodletting. Cronenberg may have put his more extreme subjects on the backburner, but he still keeps his trademark tendencies for violent scenes. There are two pretty graphic throat slitting scenes. The centerpiece of the movie has to be a gruesome fight scene inside a steam room. The fight looks entirely genuine and not a sequence that has been overly choreographed. It's just a nasty piece of business and one of the best fight scenes I've ever seen.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is strong. There is some grain and a few shots look paler than the majority of the film. It's likely due to how the movie was shot rather than anything to do with the transfer.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with an alternate French dubbed language track also in 5.1. The dialogue is easily understood and the score by Howard Shore sounds good.
Secrets and Stories (10:32) is the making-of featurette. The cast and crew discuss shooting in London and dealing with the topics of the Russian mob and human trafficking.
Marked for Life (6:38) focuses on the tattoos. We get footage of the make-up tests and we learn the meaning of each tattoo as they are pointed out.
There are previews of other Focus films such as "Lust, Caution", "Atonement", and "Reservation Road" that play as the DVD starts up. The lack of extras is very disappointment. I would have preferred longer and deeper looks at the making of the film and a commentary track with Cronenberg who is usually a good listen.
I count David Cronenberg as one of my favorite directors and I'm glad to see him getting more recognition. I thought "A History of Violence" was one of the best films of 2005 and "Eastern Promises" is easily one of the best films of 2007. "Promises" is a bit of a formulaic thriller, but it's so well-made and the performances are all so amazing that it transcends its weaker trappings. This is a fascinating look at a dark and sadistic world.