Viggo Mortensen is a damn contortionist of the face. He stretches and twists that motherfucker from regular Viggo face into badass Russian gangster face. His eyebrows and the lines on his forehead turn into an arch. His mouth twists and curls into an arrogant smirk. The slash-like lines on his cheekbones suck extra deep into his skull. I could’ve sworn the motherfucker even created a dimple on his chin somehow, like through some weird breathing technique, but I checked photos and it turns out he already had that. But it fits his character well. That’s just the chin dimple a Russian gangster like that would have.
After all those years of great supporting performances, and then hitting the lottery by being the king that returned in RETURN OF THE KING, now he is getting the roles he was born for. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is my favorite of his movies so far, so I’m glad he’s reteaming with Dave Cronenberg here. Hopefully they will continue to collaborate for at least one more movie, it could be known as “the Viggronenberg Gangster Trilogy.”
I think this is a really good, smart and original movie. But I don’t want to talk it up too much. Part of the appeal is the subtlety. It leaves alot of things unsaid, it’s pretty short and it’s small in scope. It deals with a family of Russian gangsters, but it doesn’t feel like an empire – they live in London, after all, and all the activity is centralized at one restaurant.
In fact I’m a little surprised that the reactions aren’t more divided. I heard nothing but good things from all the people I talked to who saw it before me, so I bet you’ll like it too. But still, you can’t go in expecting THE GODFATHER, which is what the critic’s quotes in some of the ads ask you to do. I heard a radio ad with a quote that was something like “Francis Ford Coppola. Martin Scorsese. And now David Cronenberg can be added to the list of directors of the greatest gangster movies of all time.” That’s kind of a cheating quote because it might be literally true but you fucking know it sounds like you’re saying this movie is as good as THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS. So you get to go into the hyperbole and then say you didn’t mean it.
So I was hoping maybe to do a quote like “EASTERN PROMISES makes THE GODFATHER look like the fucking BOONDOCK SAINTS.” Or maybe “EASTERN PROMISES makes GOODFELLAS look like CORKY ROMANO or JANE AUSTEN’S MAFIA.” But one of my buddies told me I should just leave people scratching their heads with “EASTERN PROMISES makes THE GODFATHER look like GOODFELLAS.” So that’s my quote for the DVD cover, Focus Features. Please use a large font.
Anyway, the movie stars Naomi Watts as a London midwife whose father was Russian, who happens to be there when a young prostitute dies during childbirth. She finds the girl’s diary, in Russian, and wants to get it translated so she can find out who the girl’s family is before the baby goes to an orphanage. But of course there are secrets in that diary that Russian gangsters don’t want her to know, and she gets into trouble.
I love Naomi Watts, she does a fine job and she looks cute in her motorcycle gear. But at least on my initial viewing I felt like this wasn’t her movie, this was stolen by the men. You got Armin Mueller-Stahl as the owner of the Russian restaurant. Somehow he plays it entirely as a kindly old man on the surface while being completely menacing. There are perfectly uncomfortable scenes where he keeps trying to get her to give him the diary while trying to seem like he’s not threatening her, and she either doesn’t pick up on it or knows how to play it cool like she doesn’t pick up on it.
Then there is his son Kirill played by Vincent Cassel. I think this is one of the best performances I’ve seen by that guy. He does an amazing combination of jolly, crazed, hurt, jealous, cruel, in love, and repressed. And his face is so weird looking. Great performance + weird looking face = classic.
But of course the guy everybody is gonna remember is Viggo as Nikolai. He’s Kirill’s driver/mortician, and at first it seems like the type of supporting role that Viggo did for so many years before LORD OF THE RINGS. But he becomes more central to the movie the more it goes along. You sort of think of him as the main character ultimately but alot of what’s going on with his character is never spelled out. I have plenty of ideas about what he wants but it’s sort of up to interpretation, or at least they purposely leave it unexplained.
There’s one particularly memorable scene that would just about be a shoo-in for some kind of Outlaw Award if they happen to occur this year. I wouldn’t want to give it away but it’s been mentioned in every review I’ve seen in the movie so I already knew about it going in and you probaly do too. This is not an action movie, but it’s kind of like Takeshi Kitano where it occasionally explodes into bursts of brutal violence. And there’s one amazing fight scene in a bathhouse. Roger Ebert and others have declared it a landmark scene, and I was worried I would have to be the asshole pointing out that 50 Cent already did an amazingly realistic prison shower fight scene in his otherwise pretty crappy GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN movie. Fortunately the EASTERN PROMISES scene doesn’t have the same feel at all. What it does have is the dude from LORD OF THE RINGS fighting two guys while butt ass naked. And there’s not any Austin Powers type tricks here, he’s got the balls swingin the whole time. I hate to say “no pun intended” but it took balls to do this scene. Holy shit.
I think Viggo has a real good shot at an Oscar nomination for this, I hope he gets it. There’s all the surface reasons, the fact that he speaks Russian, does a Siberian accent and accurate broken English, the way he physically transforms himself with his expressions and the way he carries himself. Then there’s the more interior reasons, the way he plays this scary guy but then shows his other side, the way he implies other secrets. It’s a hell of a performance, with so many dimensions to it, but hopefully the Oscar clip will be him naked stabbing a dude in the eye.
It’s a movie that’s hard to peg. It’s not weird like you expect from Cronenberg, but it’s not a traditional thriller either. It has a plot twist that I suspected long ahead of time, but I wasn’t sure if I was ahead of the movie or right where it wanted me to be. Alot of people have told me the ending was abrupt, but I thought it was perfect. For one character it’s happy, for another it’s victorious, but also ironic and sad. And it does kind of feel like the end of chapter one. They could definitely do another movie, and I would be excited to see it. But I also have to wonder if maybe the continuing story should just be implied. Sort of like how the end of THE MATRIX leaves you wanting to see the revolution, but most people now probaly realize they should’ve left it to their own imaginations.
One thing for sure though, I keep thinking about this movie and will have to see it again. I think it has alot of things that seem small and unimportant that looking back are very significant. Here’s an example. I’ll be kind of vague so it won’t give too much away, but if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s a quick little part where Anna’s uncle makes a horribly offensive comment, she gets upset and storms out. It completely works as just a moment, a weird uncomfortable thing that happens and makes the uncle flawed. But then if you go back and think about it it accomplishes a whole lot of storytelling in that one moment. Most important is that it gives us a piece of Anna’s history that makes us understand why she is so attached to this baby. At the same time it establishes the relationships between Anna, her uncle and her mom. And it gives her a reason to trust the other Russian family when she should stick with her own. And not only that, it sets up this theme of the “old school” Russian ways, that they can be backwards and prejudiced, so that also pretty much explains Kirill’s entire character and why he does everything he does throughout the movie. Think about it. So that one little goofy part that seems almost random is actually a crucial piece of the machinery.
But it leaves alot for you to puzzle over. For example, what the hell does the title mean? Okay, I get the EASTERN part, but what about the PROMISES? In the sense that it’s hard to figure out the title fits the movie well.
So I guess this is more of a critic’s movie or an arthouse movie than a mainstream crowdpleaser. But I suspect it will make at least a small dent in pop culture thanks to rappers and their fascination with gangsters. It’s not gonna be GODFATHER or SCARFACE popular but maybe in that area a little below CARLITO’S WAY. If I’m right that’s kind of interesting because Russians have never been considered cool in America. Their image took a beating during the Cold War, especially in the ’80s when they were called “commies” or “Russkies” and were the go-to bad guys in action movies. They were evil and mostly faceless, personality-less. With the possible exception of Ivan Drago there wasn’t even a bad guy Russian that it was cool to like, like a Darth Vader. I don’t think Drago even counts, I don’t know who was rooting for him. Even today Russian gangsters are just cheesy villains in DTV action movies.
As far as good guy Russians all we had was Yakov Smirnoff. And I don’t know about you but I never realized that guy was really Russian, I thought it was a character like Father Guido Sarducci.
This movie not only has a great badass Russian, it has a fascination with this whole world of Russian gangster traditions, in particular the symbolism of their prison tattoos. So there will finally be something about Russians that Americans will think is cool.
Wait, maybe Nikolai Volkoff from the WWF, he was a Russian bad guy character that people liked. But he’s gonna be surpassed by this new Nikolai, I guarantee it.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.