(No longer in theaters)
Paul Webster, Robert Lantos
Sep 21, 2007
Fresh from their startling (if overpraised) and unbelievably brutal crime melodrama A History of Violence, David Cronenberg has reteamed with Viggo Mortensen for the startling and unbelievably brutal crime melodrama Eastern Promises. Mortensen again plays a man who is purposefully unreadable—the Russian driver for London-based Eastern European mobsters and a pal of the boss’s volatile son (Vincent Cassel). This time, his blonde co-star is Naomi Watts as a nurse-midwife who watches a pregnant 14-year-old Russian prostitute hemorrhage to death on the operating table and heads off with her diary in search of a translator. Wouldn’t you know she takes it to the absolute wrong person—the boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) of the crime family that turns Eastern European girls into sex slaves? Will the ostensibly amoral Mortensen be her rescuer or assassin?
Mortensen is good in a role like this—a man who uses his chiseled, blue-eyed, dimpled handsomeness as a mask to hide his thoughts. It’s hard to know what else he might bring to a part—although when I first saw him, in a small role as a paraplegic in Carlito’s Way, I thought he’d be a major actor. His character here is nowhere near as layered as in A History of Violence, and neither is the movie. It’s engrossing, and Mueller-Stahl’s mix of Old World chivalry and murderousness is scarier than Jason and Freddy combined. But Eastern Promises is finally conventional, even sentimental—or as sentimental as a film in which a knife gets driven through someone’s eyeball into his brain in a gruelingly extended medium close-up can be. There’s nothing comparable to the mirror-image sex scenes between Mortensen and Maria Bello that anchored History—only a lot of Watts trudging back and forth with that damn diary-McGuffin.
The big gore set piece will get people buzzing, though. For his last film, Cronenberg brought something new to the fights: Mortensen didn’t just move faster than his antagonists; he came in way close and butted their heads and smashed their Adam’s apples and mashed their noses into their faces. He does all that here, too, but in a steam bath minus a towel. Cronenberg doesn’t just deliver bravura stabbing and bone-snappings and eye-gougings; he manages to keep the Mortensen-pickle shots to a minimum—and get his “R” rating. We wouldn’t want anything to upset the kids!