There are several moments in “Eastern Promises” that warrant discussion. The bloodletting that opens the film, for example, or the way someone puts out a cigarette with his own tongue before casually cutting up a corpse. You remember things like that. But you will also remember — and probably discuss in the most depth — the scene in which a completely naked Viggo Mortensen engages in a brutal hand-to-hand fight in a bathhouse.
There are good reasons for Mortensen to be naked in the scene, both thematically and from a story standpoint. The movie was directed by David Cronenberg, whose films are often extreme but seldom gratuitous. Here Mortensen plays Nikolai, a chauffeur for Russian mobsters in London who is well on his way to becoming a wise guy in his own right. Bathhouse meetings are traditional for men in this profession because they allow you to see the tattoos — and thus the career history, almost like military medals — of the men you’re negotiating with.
It also means, in Nikolai’s case, that he is completely vulnerable. We’ve all had nightmares about being naked, but it’s usually not the nudity that’s alarming; it’s the fact that we’re naked when we shouldn’t be. Imagine being attacked by armed thugs. Now imagine it happens when you’re defenseless, nude, and in a slippery room surrounded by hard tiles and sharp-cornered benches. Watching this scene, which would be ghastly even if everyone were fully clothed, you can’t help but recoil at the tension of it.
That’s part of the power of “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg’s absorbing and entertaining (yes, entertaining) look at the laws of crime and violence and ethics. So much of what happens is surprising or frightening, but Cronenberg doesn’t draw undue attention to that aspect of it. He’s just telling a story; this is simply the world of the characters. It’s only afterward that you can step back and appreciate just how twisted the whole thing is.
Nikolai’s sponsor in the mob family is Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the unreliable and half-crazy son of the kingpin, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is a successful London restaurateur serving authentic Russian cuisine. Nikolai knows when to shut up (which is most of the time) and when to step up and take action. It isn’t long before Semyon is impressed by him. It isn’t long after that before he starts to admit that Nikolai is a much better asset than his own unreliable son is.
The current problem facing the family has to do with a diary left by a Russian teenage girl who died while giving birth at Trafalgar Hospital. The baby survived, and the midwife who delivered her, Anna (Naomi Watts), found a diary in the dead mother’s bag. She also found a business card for Semyon’s restaurant. Did the girl work there? Does Semyon know her? He looks at her picture and says no. She has died? Oh, that is unfortunate. But … there was a diary, you say? Semyon’s attempt to ask that question in a casual manner is chilling.
Anna’s uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) can translate the diary for her. So can Semyon, who is full of grandfatherly smiles when he talks to Anna but ruthlessly unyielding when it comes to matters of business. He must deal with this diary situation, and also with a crisis that has arisen involving a breach of protocol with a rival mob family.
With a lean, mean screenplay by Steven Knight, Cronenberg examines an underworld that has a morality of its own, where it’s OK to kill this person but not that person, where you can show mercy in this situation but not the least bit of it in that one. He doesn’t pass judgment on them. He lets us do that ourselves.
Distinguished character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl (a Best Supporting Actor nominee for “Shine”) offers steely resilience as the dangerous Semyon, while Vincent Cassel is enjoyably, creepily unpredictable as his loose-cannon son. Naomi Watts is good, too, in an unglamorous role as a woman navigating an organization that has little use for women outside the bedroom.
Viggo Mortensen was solid in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He was compelling in “A History of Violence,” in which he also collaborated with Cronenberg as a man with an animalistic knack for savagery. Now, in “Eastern Promises,” he is in full bloom, completely in control of his face and body even while handling a tricky (but utterly convincing) Russian accent. Nikolai is a dark, powerful figure, with frightening strength and an unnerving emotional detachment. Yet there are moments where Mortensen makes us wonder if Nikolai is really such an unfeeling monster. What is “right” and “wrong” to him? Is he most loyal to himself, or to his bosses? You can’t take your eyes off him, even when you most want to.
A- (1 hr., 40 min.; )