Sunday, December 23, 2007

Eastern Promises: Grade A

Eastern Promises (2007)
Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortenstern, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl. Director David Cronenberg. Mostly English, with some subtitled Russian.

It’s Russian mafia trafficking in women vs. Chechen criminal gangs, all in modern London. Into that dark, cold, extremely violent world stumbles Watts’ character, after a young, pregnant Russian girl arrives at the hospital where she works. The girl dies, the baby survives, and so does the girl’s diary, which reveals incriminating facts about the Russian gang’s operations. Before the diary is translated, Watts tries to find a relative, to prevent the baby from going into foster care, and discovers “godfather” Mueller-Stahl’s restaurant. He learns of the diary and sends thug Mortenstern to get it. Meanwhile there are murders and retaliatory murders between the Russian and Chechen gangs. There is more than a little allusion to the Godfather series, but this movie actually reminds me a lot of 1994’s Little Odessa. I kept expecting Tim Roth to appear. There are many unexpected events and shocking scenes that jolt you upright in your chair. There is a fight scene in a public bath house where Mortenstern, completely naked, defends himself against two assassins with knives. The vulnerable flesh against the hard tile is almost more painful to watch than the bloody slashing. It is a memorable scene that held me breathless. But there is more than violence and gore here. Both Mortensterns’ and Watt’s characters develop plausibly as events continue, and the intellectual thread of the plot is engaging. Although the ending is a little too pat, it works. Watt’s character often behaves in the infuriatingly stupid ways that characters do in cheap horror films. There are some loose ends, and that always bothers me, but they are minor. While not for the queasy, the movie is a memorable masterpiece of filmmaking.

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