I've held off in writing about David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" because I wanted to let it sink in for a while. And now that it has, I can declare that, by Cronenberg standards, while its a fairly standard genre pic, it's still a very entertaining little potboiler.
As I was thinking about it, I had to compare it to Spike Lee's "Inside Man," a movie which just left me cold (though, don't get me wrong, I otherwise have nothing but love for Spike.) Both are examples of directors who make their own rules but were her dabbling in very conventional fare. With "Eastern Promises," Cronenberg managed to keep enough of his signature style to make it the superior flick of the two.
And Cronenberg has two people to thank for this, starting with Viggo Mortensen. What mostly makes "Eastern Promises" more than your average Russian mafia/white slavery movie (and I'm not gonna tell you much more than that about the plot because so few people bothered to see this last week), is that Viggo takes charge of his role of the driver/thug and holds your attention by sheer force of will.
A co-worker of mine, Erin, who is enamored of both Viggo's body as well of his body of work, compared him to Clint Eastwood when I asked the devil's advocate question of whether Viggo can actually act or not. And while he's not there yet, I can certainly buy the comparison to a certain extent. They both have the ability to end a conversation with just a look, and make that look speak louder than any number of words.
Cronenberg's second worthy co-conspirator on "Eastern Promises" is screenwriter Steven Knight, who has a rather disturbing knack for probing the underbelly of London. He did it last (and, frankly, a little better) with "Dirty Pretty Things," the 2002 Stephen Frears flick about immigrants and organ smuggling starring Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor (double huzzah!) Working here instead with Russian immigrants dealing in rather dirty but not pretty things, he's aided by baddies Armin Mueller Stahl and Vincent Cassell in constructing a realistically chilling glimpse into this wicked world.
But Knight's screenplay also delivers the shortcomings that keep this from being a great rather than good flick. Why haven't I mentioned Naomi Watts yet? It's certainly not because I don't like her. It's simply because here Knight and Cronenberg really underwrite her character, a hospital midwife who uncovers a secret that gets her entangled with the rascally Russians. While this could have been a compelling role, they instead make her a very one-dimensional angel/saviour type, and little more.
And, compared to Cronenberg's previous flicks, "Eastern Promises" doesn't stand up with his best meditations on the role and effects of violence in our society. Compared to "A History of Violence" or my personal favorite, "Spider" (if you haven't seen this mind-bender with Ralph Fiennes yet, do so immediately), it comes up more than a little empty.
In the end, though, even if Cronenberg was kind of cruising with this one, it's a salute to his tremendous talent as a filmmaker that he still manages to deliver a movie that's as compelling as it as entertaining, and one I hope many, many more people will discover this week.