- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Focus Features
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
he term "overrated" has become a word used far too commonly when discussing film these days, but director David Cronenberg’s follow-up to his 2005 masterpiece, “A History of Violence,” is exactly that. A slow-going gangster tale that rarely takes advantage of a golden opportunity, “Eastern Promises” feels more like the first half of a character-driven epic than a film capable of standing on its own. Whether it’s a product of the high expectations we now have after witnessing Cronenberg’s ability to tap into the mainstream, or the simple fact that the two films have nothing in common, one thing’s for sure: making you believe something isn’t the same as delivering it, and while "Eastern Promises” would love to convince you it’s a thrilling crime drama in the same vein as “The Departed,” it falls short of its goal.
Naomi Watts stars as Anna Ivanakova, a London-based midwife who’s unknowingly dragged into the middle of Russia’s criminal underground when she discovers a secret that could destroy one of its most prominent members. After delivering the baby of a Russian teenager who dies in labor, Anna pockets the girl’s diary for the purpose of translating the contents and tracking down her family. Unfortunately, Anna can’t read Russian, but when she discovers the business card for a Russian eatery in the middle of the small book, she decides to go there for help. What she doesn’t know, however, is that Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the restaurant owner, is not only the leader of the mafia, but the one in charge of raping, impregnating, and ordering the murder of the young girl. Sent to help cover up the scandal-in-the-making is Seymon’s out-of-control son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and his lapdog driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), both of whom would benefit greatly from the elderly king's downfall.
One of the many problems plaguing “Eastern Promises” is that it has a difficult time staying focused. While the film is ostensibly about Nikolai’s rise within the family, it spends a considerable amount of time (the first half of the film, to be exact) following Anna around London as she’s stalked by the mob. One might think this would enable both stories to blend together, but it only wastes time that would have been better spent developing the former. And this is in part why the film is so unsuccessful. By the time it reaches its anticlimactic ending – which includes a very unsurprising twist that any cinephile can spot from a mile away – there are more questions than answers; many of which I can’t speak of without ruining the film.
Despite its noticeably tamer attitude towards violence, the film does offer some very memorable moments, including a no-holds-barred knife fight between a completely nude Viggo and two Russian thugs in the middle of a bathhouse. It’s the kind of visceral, animalistic battle that would have been better used in “A History of Violence,” but it does serve a purpose in this film as well; namely in showing the audience that Nikolai can back up his words, few though they may be. There’s also a great scene involving his initiation into the family, but instead of making the film better, they only serve as a reminder of what the movie could have been.
An episode of “Lost” this is not, and unless Cronenberg plans to continue the story in his next film, all of the juicy build-up from “Eastern Promises” will have been for nothing. It’s an incomplete masterpiece that could have been easily remedied with an additional 20 minutes, but Cronenberg went and ruined it with an ending even more disappointing than the “Sopranos” season finale. I hope he’s happy.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
It would be lying to say that the Blu-ray release of “Eastern Promises” doesn’t contain any new extras, but it would also be a little misleading. Yes, two new featurettes are included on the disc – one about the infamous knife scene (“Two Guys Walk Into a Bathhouse”) and another about Naomi Watts’ on-set experience with a motorcylce (Watts on Wheels) – but their total runtime is a whopping three minutes, so don’t get excited just yet. The previous bonus material also appears – including interviews with the cast and crew (“Secrets & Stories”) and a history of tattoos in the Russian mafia (“Marked for Life”) – but what this release is really missing is an in-depth audio commentary by director David Cronenberg.