Eastern Promises is a perfectly good thriller, maybe even a better-than-average thriller, and if I’d gone into it with no expectations of any kind, I might would have enjoyed it more. But with David Cronenberg directing and Viggo Mortensen starring, I was gleefully anticipated A History of Violence 2, with a dash of the mordant humor and social consciousness of screenwriter Steven Knight’s previous effort Dirty Pretty Things, and Eastern Promises simply didn’t live up to those expectations.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a London hospital midwife who presides over an emergency labor that leaves the fourteen-year-old Russian mother dead and her newborn daughter orphaned. Hoping to track down the baby’s family, Anna visits the restaurant whose business card is tucked inside the dead girl’s diary, and though Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the restaurant’s owner, claims not to know the girl, he offers to translate her journal for clues. Anna soon realizes, however, that Semyon is a dangerous man, a local leader of the vory v zakone (Russian mafia), and the dead girl is, in fact, connected to him, as well as to his volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassell) and their ever-present driver Nikolai (Mortensen), a mysterious man whose prison tattoos mark him as one capable of brutal, remorseless violence.
There’s so much potential here, such talented filmmakers and actors, such rich subject matter, but plot-wise, Eastern Promises is like a mediocre episode of Law and Order. Human trafficking is a provocative, timely topic, but Knight tackles it indirectly, and the result isn’t compelling. I loved the way his Dirty Pretty Things screenplay explores immigration issues from the unmediated point of view of immigrants, but here he takes an all-too-familiar page from Glory, inviting us to gawk at the unfortunates instead of helping us to see through the eyes of our fellow human beings.
Cronenberg also has taken a turn toward the shallow end of the pool. A History of Violence manages to function simultaneously as a fierce action movie and a deconstruction of the same. The explosive, adrenalized, unflinchingly violent scenes are enthralling, irresistible, almost erotic. We can’t help but be impressed by Tom Stall’s capacity for violence—his skill, his instinct—and yet we see, too, how it taints him, how he can never be the man he wants to be. That warring dichotomy is what makes the movie unforgettable.
But Eastern Promises provides only the explosive, adrenalized, unflinching violence: it’s all yin and no yang. The fight in the bathhouse—already notorious—is undeniably riveting, a masterpiece of choreographed battle, but it functions only as a set piece, a meaningless cinematic jolt of epinephrine.
I appreciate Mortensen’s potent performance (not to mention the raw physicality of his bathhouse ballet), and the rest of cast is just as good, but they’re all wasted here on a predictable, uninspired story. The only thing that sets apart Cronenberg’s follow-up to History is the allure and shock value of its violence. The irony of that makes me wince.