Here's my full-length review from The American Conservative of the Golden Globe-nominated "Eastern Promises:"
"Eastern Promises" is a violent, sentimental, and efficient Russian immigrant mob movie with an overpowering star performance from Viggo Mortensen (the King in "The Return of the King") as
's favorite kind of hero, the dangerous man with a heart of gold. He plays the new chauffeur of a London-based Russian mafia family trafficking in sex slaves from the Old Country. Hollywood
Veteran art house goremeister David Cronenberg considerately telegraphs each grotesque throat-slitting far enough in advance that I could close my eyes until it was over, except for one naked knife fight in a Turkish bath that must have gone on even longer than the similar scene in "Borat."
Cronenberg's most popular film with the public was 1986's "The Fly," with Jeff Goldblum as a mad scientist sprouting bristly black fur due to an experiment gone terribly wrong. In contrast, critics adored Cronenberg's 2005 action movie with the pretentious title, "A History of Violence." Cronenberg cast as the small town nice guy who isn't whom he seems the half-Danish Mortensen, along with the uber-WASP William Hurt (a step-grandson of Henry and Clare Booth Luce) as his Philadelphia mafioso brother who pulls him back in. (Exactly which Philly crime family was left vague: perhaps the notorious Anglo-Scandinavian Main Line Mob?)
The implausible casting was a nudge to rapturous critics to overinterpret this dopey little shoot-em-up not as a normal gangster flick, but as a profound anti-Bush allegory about the unspeakable violence that underlies American history etc. etc. …
Unfortunately, "A History of Violence" seemed perpetually a bit off, as if Cronenberg had never been to a small town. I saw it at a $3 theatre and the low-budget Saturday night crowd gave it the raspberry, hooting at its phony twists.
Cronenberg's latest crime family thriller collaboration with Mortensen, "Eastern Promises," is a sizable improvement. It might be almost as preposterous as "A History of Violence," but its less familiar setting amidst Russians in
Londonmakes it easier to enjoy than Cronenberg's clankingly inept vision of middle America.
"Eastern Promises" raises politically incorrect questions about why we would want so many newcomers that immigrant mafias have become inevitable. Cronenberg explained his opposition to immigrants failing to assimilate to the New York Times:
"At its worst, it’s you come and you live there, but you live in a little ghetto of your own culture that you brought with you. I suppose that’s happening in the States with the Spanish language. Can multiculturalism really work?"
"Eastern Promises" asks whether the West needs, in particular, quite so many foreign pimps to lure naïve blonde adolescents here from Eastern Europe with promises of singing jobs, only to rape them, hook them on heroin, and enslave them in brothels here? (Steve Knight's script is so hostile to the immigrant criminals that he makes Putin's secret policemen the good guys!)
Mortensen possesses what Cronenberg calls "very Russian cheekbones," and he has the "flathead" look of a post-Soviet goon down perfectly. In truth, Mortensen exudes so much star power that he overwhelms his role as a nobody who recently showed up in
from somewhere vague in the Urals. Luckily, the supposedly wily old crime lord never wonders why this confident, competent, and commanding 40-something man with an air of innate nobility needs an entry-level job. London
Meanwhile, the supporting plot line, with Naomi Watts ("King Kong") as a nice English midwife, makes only symbolic sense as a metaphor for the Hobbesian decay spread by immigration. When a comatose 14-year-old Russian prostitute dies delivering her baby, the midwife pockets her diary, hoping to deduce who the baby's grandparents are. (Apparently, perhaps due to National Health budget cuts, the job of legally identifying unknown babies has been delegated to random hospital staffers to have a go at in their spare time.) Displaying formidable powers of bad judgment, she asks a courtly Russian restaurant owner, who happens to be the godfather pimp himself, to translate it.
When she realizes who her translator is -- and that he knows she knows -- instead of calling Scotland Yard for protection, she arranges a meeting with his chauffeur, bringing along her aged uncle and mum as bodyguards. Evidently, in the spirit of the "vibrant" globalized
-- O brave new world! -- she's forgotten that boring old England spent 800 years developing rule of law so that the English wouldn't have to form their own family mafias just for self-protection from other mafias. London
Rated a very hard R.