When a Russian teenager dies in childbirth, nurse Anna (Watts) determines to find her family and save the baby from foster care. The girls diary leads her to enigmatic driver Nikolai (Mortensen) and the bloody underworld of the Russian Mafia.
The first time Viggo Mortensen’s mysterious Mafia fixer Nikolai gets to dominate the screen in Eastern Promises, he is using a hair-drier to defrost a frozen corpse. He works calmly, expensive tie slung over his shoulder, cigarette dangling laconically from his lip, as he snips off the fingers and their incriminating prints. With his distinctly Russian air of seen-it-all cynicism, his weary curl of
a smile and a luxuriantly accented voice, he’s pretty charming for a man cutting the fingers off a murdered gangster.
As a good guy who does bad things, Mortensen gave mystery and moral weight to A History Of Violence, David Cronenberg’s previous step into the mainstream, and he performs a similar task here. Sadly, his castmates don’t get the same opportunity. Vincent Cassel takes the traditional Joe Pesci crazy-bastard role, as an off-the-rails, none-too-bright Mob captain who proudly describes an illegal consignment of vintage wine as “old as fuck”. Naomi Watts is the big-hearted nurse on a mission to trace a dead girl’s family, and there’s only so much she can do with that.
The problem primarily lies with Steve Knight’s overly schematic screenplay. Like the writer’s Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises is an issue movie concerned with the murky world of people-trafficking and the Russian Mafia. In the event that any viewer is under the illusion that luring Eastern European teenagers to London, pumping them with heroin and forcing them into prostitution is a good thing, Knight trowels on the moral outrage. A diary-reading voiceover by the dead girl, who might as well be called Victima Deadmeatova, piles on the misery until it topples into melodrama.
Cronenberg’s obviously much happier with the intricacies of gangster life. Perhaps thrilled at the discovery of an ethnic Mob that Scorsese hasn’t got to first, he revels in the detail, fascinated by conflicted nostalgia for the old country and the tattoos that ensure a Russian gangster’s past is permanently etched into his body: a very Cronenbergian idea. He has a good feel for the drabber side of London, too. Unlike most North American directors, he manages to reach the end credits without inserting a single shot of buses passing over Tower Bridge. “It never snows in this city,” grumbles Armin Mueller-Stahl’s shabby kingpin. “It’s never hot.”
Then there is the violence, which is, in one case, literally eye-popping. Cronenberg has always considered the rending of flesh too important to be glamorised, and the bloodshed here is convincingly messy, with a gruesomely inept throat-slashing and a naked bathhouse showdown which makes the diner scene in A History Of Violence look like a pillow fight, and deserves to earn Mortensen some kind of award for nude acting above and beyond the call of duty.
It’s the kind of daring, visceral sequence you leave the cinema talking about, but coming on the heels of one of the best films of Cronenberg’s career, Eastern Promises winds up being a disappointment. Where A History… was a comic-book adaptation with unexpected depth, this takes a painful issue and gives it a pulpy implausibility.
Mortensen shines but a contrived, issue-driven plot destabilises what could have been a great Russian gangster movie.