In David Cronenberg's first prime (1986-1991), he would use somber, bug-eyed, off kilter actors like Jeff Goldblum and Peter Weller to tell bugged out, off kilter, somber tales - tragedies predominantly. In his second prime (which humbly began with 2002's Spider and gained steam with 2005's A History of Violence) he began using soft featured, handsome Hollywood actors (like Ralph Fiennes and Viggo Mortensen). Has Cronenberg gone mainstream?
Not really, though I believe he is enjoying the attention.
His last two films, both starring Mortensen, revolve around men skilled in doling out physical pain and death, who live deeply embedded within a lie. Almost to the point of completely vanishing.
Both films involve crime families and the ties that bind. Eastern Promises is an expose of the Russian mafia operating with reckless abandon in contemporary London. While Mortensen, as Nikolai, and Naomi Watts as a doctor who gets dragged in by happenstance (yet, how do you like that, her father was Russian), are the central characters, the mafia and its daunting, cold, heartless, presence is the central artery. And we are not dealing with just any mafia. Though the elements of murder, respect, tradition, and organized crime under the guise of upstanding business remain constant within the genre identified with Coppola and Scorsese, this is the RUSSIAN mob (likely Jewish as Mortensen at one point make a l'chayim). The accents are thick, the vendettas unique, the codes (such as storytelling tattoos) are culture specific. It almost feels like a dramatization of different dreamed up Russian mob scenarios. There seems to be no point to it all other that to craft an unsettling motion picture with some grisly close ups of throats being slit.
A testament to the directionlessness of the film is the wasted talents of Naomi Watts. Here is a woman capable of accomplishing anything on screen and yet she is required to do nothing other than appear mildly concerned. Her character delivers the baby of a young girl exported in from Kiev for prostitution purposes and is killed after becoming pregnant with an important child.
Eastern Promises is diverting, but it hardly lives up to its pedigree. Mortensen is sleepwalking through a convoluted plot and not because he isn't trying, but because the character, as written, is bland and emotionless.
However, his resume can forever note that in Eastern Promises the actor evaded two murderous thugs in a bathhouse and viciously turned the tables on them - while naked. The only stand out performance is turned in by Vincent Cassel as ambivalent, insecure mafia prince, Kirill, who seethes self-disgust and mayhem.
For whatever reason, Cronenberg only hints of the homosexual relationship between Nikolai and Kirill. Also only hinted at is Nikolai's motivations and an explanation for the curious trajectory of his career. At first he is a mere "driver" and lackey of Kirill. The mafia boss, played with the usual delicate compassion masking menace by Armin Mueller-Stahl, barely recognizes Nikolai's existence. Days later Nikolai has risen through the ranks, surpassed Kirill as the favorite son, and is looking to take over the family…but there is a twist (and not a believable or original one – just a convenient one).
And let us not forget there is a baby to save, giving Watts something to appear concerned about. I'm all for shades of grey and ambiguity, but Eastern Promises crosses the line - almost arrogantly - into the realm of inconsistency and fantasy. Cronenberg has not lost his touch as a filmmaker and as a director willing to push the boundaries of audience comfort. With the right script he is an adept visual artist, but Eastern Promises, like a KGB sniper sloshed on Vodka, misses the mark.