Is it possible to take seriously a movie where the violent highlight is a vicious fight in a public bath? The fight requires, of course, that at least one of the male fighters be nude. In this case, it's the lead actor and there are no flopping bits that we don't see. Another requirement would be that knives must be involved so that we can get plenty of blood, along with wince-inducing moments when blades slice into back and stomach muscles. And for a coup de grace, what could be more ick worthy than a blade driven into an eyeball, with the crunch of the socket bone being shattered?
The bathhouse fight in Eastern Promises may be exploitive, but it's one of the most exciting, stunningly choreographed brawls I've seen on a screen. More to the point, it tells us something about the kind of man Nikolai is. He's the man who survives, and he's a lot tougher, smarter, more resourceful and more violent than we may have thought...and that's saying something, since we've already watched him "process" a corpse for anonymous disposal. It involved removing the teeth and fingers using pliers and a snipper.
Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai, the driver, as he calls himself, for the head of a powerful and vicious gang of Russian mafia based in London. Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the old man who owns the Trans-Siberian Restaurant, rules his criminal empire with guile and force. He is an aging man with white hair clipped short. He can be a friendly sort at times. He makes a wonderful pot of borscht. He plays the violin. He has daughters. He encourages his angels, his granddaughters, to learn the violin. "You must practice more," he tells them. "You must make the wood cry." Semyon spends much of his time running drugs and prostitution. He brings in underage girls from Eastern Europe who think they'll be maids and waitresses, then imprisons them, hooks them on heroin, brutalizes and breaks them with rape and beatings, and puts them to work. One 14-year-old girl escapes. She can barely speak English. She's pregnant and hemorrhaging. When she dies in a hospital her baby is saved and her diary is found. Eastern Promises is going to tell us about Anna (Naomi Watts), the nurse who helped deliver the baby and found the diary; about Semyon and the lengths he will go to protect himself, his power and his son; and about the driver, Nikolai, the man Semyon trusts as much as he would trust anyone. We're going to learn more than we want about Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's son. Kirill is a weakling who likes to beat people, a drunk, a man who breaks in the frightened girls by raping them on his father's orders and beats them when he can't perform. At one moment he embraces Nikolai as a brother, another he forces Nikolai into humiliating acts. Kirill grovels for his father's approval and beats others when he doesn't get it.
Eastern Promises is a fine movie, violent, complex and ugly. We're deep in London's Russian mafia, where violent thugs have tattoos that tell each other the story of their crimes, their murders and their imprisonments. Family is the only thing that counts, and even that becomes a repugnant concept. Moving through this is Nikolai, slab-faced, pale, calm to the point of being unnerving. When he seems drawn to Anna, we're never quite sure whether this will mean a degree of tenderness, or her death, or the death of the baby who has become a lever some would use against Semyon. "I'm just the driver," Nikolai says.
Through it all I was engrossed, partly with the world of these tattooed, dangerous men, partly with the subtle way David Cronenberg fiddled with my reactions and assumptions, and partly with just how good the actors were. Mortensen gave a stunning performance, down to his Russian-accented English, to his physicality and to the way he kept us off-balance with his intentions. Just as good was Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon. He has given us any number of wise old men to admire. Here he gives us a monster, opening layer upon layer of cruelty and betrayal. Mueller-Stahl just asking Anna with avuncular concern where she lives is able to raise the dread level with no effort at all.
There is a twist that cannot be described, and which I wish hadn't happened. Even with that, Eastern Promises is a movie worth seeing and owning.
The look of the film is just as tough and dark as the story. And if you're of a certain age, you'll remind yourself to buy Cronenberg's Scanners (for your kids, of course) when you pick up Eastern Promises.