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Eastern Promises
Three and one half hearts

"A Master at Modest Work"

Written by Steven Walker

The problem with being one of the great living filmmakers is that everyone expects your next film to be brilliant.  Trouble is…that is always an unrealistic expectation.

David Cronenberg’s last film, A History of Violence, was shockingly good and instantly leapt onto my all-time favorites list. Another Cronenberg offering on that list is The Fly,  perhaps the greatest horror film of the 80s.    

Eastern Promises stuck me as a film David Cronenberg made to keep working between passion projects.  It is a modest character study, probably very low budget, and while certainly fascinating, it is neither thrilling nor memorable.  For a Cronenberg effort, the story seems strangely lacking in thematic depth. 

That is not to say there is no depth.  There is a great deal of subtle character work, and no relationships are as simple as they first appear to be.  Layers of trust and betrayal interweave and the expected outcome is often overturned. 

I know nothing about the Russian mob, but the portrait this movie paints is convincing and intriguing.  There is something fascinating about a complex organization that cannot allow records to be kept.  The need for personal trust and respect is therefore paramount.  The tattoos are a lovely way to symbolize this and I hope they are based in reality.

Yet the story never seems to become more than it is.  Despite all the craft of a master filmmaker on display, it is still a slight story where not that much really happens.  Cronenberg’s best films always have a thematic narrative beneath the literal one which propels them to greatness (Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch, A History of Violence), but Eastern Promises appears to be only skin deep.   

And speaking of skin, this is Cronenberg, so you should know what to expect.  No one films violence or sexuality the way he does.  There are only three actual moments of violence in the film, but they are stunning in their brutality and how they ride the edge of gratuity so close without crossing it. 

Cronenberg is not content to hurt the characters, he wants to hurt the audience.  There is a knife fight in a sauna featuring a naked Viggo Mortensen (yes ladies, you get to see everything, and in motion) where every cut feels so painful you cannot help but cringe.  The climax of this fight will make gorehounds stand up and cheer.

The real reason to see this movie is for the ridiculous acting talent on display.  Viggo completely disappears into the character of Nikolai Luzhin, including what is to my untrained ears a flawless Russian accent.  He is a complex character whose depth is revealed in very small doses, and it would not be a stretch to imagine Cronenberg doing this movie just so he and Viggo could craft this performance.

And Viggo is not even really the star!  He is surrounded by very strong work from Vicent Cassel (Loved him since Brotherhood of the Wolf), Armin Mueller-Stahl (The leader of The X-Files conspirators), and Aleksandar Mikic (never seen him before but his small supporting role was my favorite part of the movie).  Though I find I prefer Naomi Watts when she is being held by a giant gorilla.

So I’m a little confused over my rating.  This is a technically superior film with some standout moments and amazing acting, but a story that was not really worth my time.  I guess three and a half hearts is a nice average.             

 

 

 

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