Thursday, October 11, 2007

­Eastern Promises

I wore myself out a little, trying to get to see this one. It was my birthday and I was going to do something fun, so I tried to get to the 3-D Imax dinosaurs at the Aquarium, only to find that the Imax theater was closed for a private function. A quick glance through the wallet revealed that a free movie from Regal's customer-loyalty program was expiring that day, so I got to a Green Line stop and headed out there, where the computer at the box office appeared to be shot, delaying me long enough that I had no time to get popcorn and soda at the concession stand (which had four people and no lines compared to the one person and impatient people at the box).

Well worth the effort, all told (although I wish I hadn't missed the dinos), but I was pretty hungry by the time I got home.

Eastern Promises

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 October 2007 at Regal Fenway #1 (first-run)

Eastern Promises makes me wish that filmmakers today were a little more prolific, because I'd love to see David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen crank out some new crime every year and still have time to do other things. The pair's previous collaboration, A History of Violence, set an impressive standard, and Eastern Promises shows that it was no fluke.

Where Violence was firmly centered on Mortensen's character, Promises is more an ensemble piece. The first major player we meet is Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who recovers a diary from a woman who died during childbirth. It's in Russian, and when her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) refuses to translate it, she takes it to restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Of course, he's the wrong guy to go to - he's head of the local Russian mob, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is mentioned by name, and Kirill's new driver/bodyguard, Nikolai (Mortensen) is ever-alert for an opportunity to impress the boss.

The attentive audience member will quite possibly be a step or two ahead of the story at times; Steve Knight's script has a couple of interesting plot twists that it does an uneven job of camouflaging. Cronenberg counters that by focusing as much on atmosphere as story. He spends time explaining the significance of Russian prison tattoos and lingering on gatherings at Semyon's restaurant. The Russians in this movie are somewhere between exiles and expatriots, the older ones clinging tenaciously to every vestige of their culture that they can preserve or recreate while the next generation is starting to pull away, keeping only what they need. That includes Anna, whose late father was Russian, but whose only real attachment to the culture aside from Uncle Stepan is the Soviet-era motorcycle she rides to and from work.

Anna is the film's weakest link as a character. The connected worlds of Russian emigres and crime families are presented vibrantly enough that we don't need an outsider perspective to draw us in, and she doesn't really do anything else once she's accidentally alerted the bad guys to the existence and location of the story's MacGuffin, and her recent miscarriage is a very standard-issue motivator. That's not a knock on Naomi Watts; she does a nice job and I like how she resists the temptation to play Anna as particularly drawn to Nikolai; there's a nice balance of confidence, naivete, and skittishness to her. I suspect that the only reason not to rewrite the script without her is that otherwise, the only female characters are junkies, prostitutes, and other victims, even though might represent the criminal underworld well enough.

The Russian gangsters, on the other hand, are seldom less than a delight to watch. This might not be Armin Mueller-Stahl's greatest achievement in creating a father figure with a block of ice where his heart should be, but it certainly does the job. There's a little bit of Don Corleone in Semyon, a nice mix of wiliness, sociopathy, and genuine charm. Then there's Viggo Mortensen, slimmed down so that there's not a gram of wasted bulk on him; Nikolai is so cocky that not only does he know he's the smartest guy in the room, but he's willing to wait for you to recognize that fact. Even his occasional displays of conscience have attitude; doing the right thing when he can marks him as smarter than the other thugs. By thugs, he means guys like Vincent Cassel's Kirill. Kirill is as nasty and arrogant as any of the other gangsters, but doesn't have the brains or spine to back it up. Cassel's performance might be the best of the bunch; he makes a potential monster whose attempts to prove it make him oddly sympathetic.

Cronenberg keeps his movie going at a steady pace. Promises is a little miscast as a thriller, because even though there's danger, it's not so much the constant edge-of-one's-seat variety; it kind of lurks around the edges. When it does come front and center, though, it's nasty, whether in the form of graphically split throats or Nikolai's exceptionally brutal fight in a steam room. As much as he sucks us into this world and makes it fascinating, he certainly doesn't sugar-coat it.

Cronenberg doesn't quite attain the perfection here that he did last time out, but his near miss compares favorably with many directors' best work. Eastern Promises might not quite achieve greatness, but it certainly does achieve something on the upper end of "very good indeed".

Also at HBS.

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