George Bass 16/11/2007
Perhaps the most realistic film to grace the 'thawed hitman' subgenre (SPOILERS)
A David Cronenberg film scripted by the bloke who used to write The Detectives? Surely the hottest ticket in town. With Jasper Carrott juggling Golden Balls and Robert Powell snorting Holby City contraband, it's up to Viggo Mortensen to fill the frame and try on Steve Knight's screenplay for size. Already established as the Paddy Considine to Cronenberg's Shane Meadows, the History Of Violence leading man delivers a spectacular turn as Soviet heavy Nikolai; a mercenary with enough menace to make Leon dive for cover into his Cravendale. Assigned to watch backs at a swanky city restaurant that doubles as cover for a mafioso prostitution racket, Nikolai finds his loyalties straying when he crosses swords with Naomi Watts' plummy nurse Anna. Drawn into the city's Eastern underworld in an attempt to trace the family of a manslaughtered single mother, Anna's own Russian heritage does her more harm than good as she wanders into the path of Armin Mueller-Stahl's Semyon, who treats sacred cows as burgermeat and will stop at nothing to quash a threat to his brutal regime. This is not so much a game of cat and mouse, but more a round of Clanger versus a pack of tigers. The multi-tongued Vincent Cassel offers fine support as the volatile manchild of the ruthless family, and gets to add another accent to his CV while acting his way off the rails.
Eastern Promises colours in its plotlines with Peter Suschitzky's wiley-eyed camera work, and Cronenberg's London sits somewhere between the dark agoraphobia of his 2002 Spider adaption and the principal city from David Fincher's Se7en: all drizzled doorways and jostling sidestreets, grim in the The Brothers sense of the word. It seems that bad weather and gore are not mutually exclusive, and the director's ick fetish has had its choke-chain loosened a couple of links since the relatively bloodless A History Of Violence. The much talked about sauna scene is without question one of the more dazzling pieces of cinema in recent years, and has undoubtedly made a rod for the backs of those directors who relied on flashy jumpcuts and guitar-driven techno tracks to drum tension into their audience. However, the set pieces themselves play second fiddle to the central antagonist, and Nikolai is surely a cult anti-hero in the making. Reserved but consistently arresting -- think Tony Montana on lithium -- his collage of tattoos serve as bookmarks for the decisions the character's had to take, and it's a role Mortensen immerses himself in with all the relish of a McDonald's salad platter. Yes, there's a twist in the works again, but both director and star command it without fudging. If anything, it makes you want to go back to chapter one and start reading straight away again.
Once again, Cronenberg's jink towards the mainstream has served him well, and, like some basement physics boffin who's been bundled off to a Cambridge research silo, he commands his resources with confident hands. Eastern Promises is polished enough to make you believe his previous experiments with philosophical body horror were merely ventures in building directorial goodwill, and it sits as another trophy in the cabinet of one of America's most overlooked filmmakers.
On general release nationwide now