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Eastern Promises

A Flawed, if Compelling, Crime Drama

In four decades and more than twenty films, David Cronenberg's (The History of Violence, Crash, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, Scanners, The Brood) obsessions with body modification, identity, illness and mental instability, have led to the creation of a sub-genre: "body-horror", that has since become synonymous with Cronenberg’s name. While the director has increasingly moved away from the horror genre, his obsessions have remained.

His latest film, Eastern Promises, a mob thriller written by Steven Knight (Amazing Grace, Dirty Pretty Things), unfortunately sticks too close to genre conventions and slips once or twice (or more) logic wise, but it's rarely less than compelling, thanks to Cronenberg’s efficient, unobtrusive direction and riveting performances by Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts.

A dispute between Russian mobsters leads to a violent murder at a barbershop in London. The dead man is a well-connected Russian gangster. After a pregnant Russian teenager, Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), collapses in a pharmacy, she's rushed to Trafalgar Hospital where Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife, helps to deliver her baby. Tatiana doesn't survive and Anna becomes enamored with the baby girl she names Christine.

Concerned that Christine will be sent into foster care, Anna looks through Tatiana's belongings and finds a diary written in Russian. The half-Russian Anna can understand Russian but can't read it, so she turns to her uncle, Stepan Khitrov (Jerzy Skolimowski), for help. Stepan initially refuses to translate the diary for Anna based on ethical grounds.

Driven by her desire to find Christine's surviving family, Anna follows the only other lead she has, a business card for the Trans-Siberian restaurant. There, she meets the genial, jovial Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the restaurant manager who initially claims he didn't know Tatiana. He offers, however, to translate the diary for Anna. She accepts. She also meets Semyon's hotheaded son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Kirill's taciturn, enigmatic "driver", Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen).

All three men are part of the Vory V Zakone, the Russian mob. Anna's natural reticence and instinct for self-preservation begins to give way to Nikolai's charms, but he's a violent man with a violent history. The diary, of course, hides secrets that pose a danger to everyone who’s read it or connected to Tatiana.

As a mob-centered crime thriller, Eastern Promises unsurprisingly focuses on rivalries, deceit, betrayals, and, of course, murder, leaving it with a lot of genre baggage to overcome. Just about every facet of the mob family sub-genre has been explored and exploited over the last thirty-five years. Changing the ethnicity of the gangsters from Italian to Russian isn't generally enough to elevate derivative genre material.

The elderly mob boss whose gentle demeanor hides a ruthless streak isn't particularly new nor is the hotheaded, weak-willed son (a combination of Sonny and Fredo Corleone from The Godfather I and II). The apparently ruthless "driver"/assassin who lives by an honor code is straight out of Hong Kong action films (e.g. John Woo’s The Killer). To be fair, adding a female outsider character essentially as our point-of-view character helps to distinguish Eastern Promises from other genre entries, but not by much.

Not surprisingly for a Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises certainly doesn't shy away from the violence inherent in the Russian mafia world. Out of several, violence-centered set pieces, only one of them comes close to matching those found in Cronenberg’s last film, the controversial A History of Violence. Always interested in challenging and subverting audience expectations about genre films, Cronenberg opted to resolve key conflicts offscreen, a decision that will frankly leave many, if not most moviegoers, scratching their heads in frustration. But combined intense, charismatic turns by Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, the end result is a compelling, if no less flawed, genre effort by a talented, subversive filmmaker working well within his métier.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars