Naomi Watts - Viggo Mortensen
4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
If you’ve studied organized crime you know most gangsters are not like the philosophical, middle-aged jolly jokers you’ve seen on “The Sopranos.” Take Frank McErlane, referred to by law enforcement as “the most brutal killer who ever pulled a trigger in Chicago” by the Illinois Crime Survey. McErlane was the first mobster to employ the “one way ride,” use a submachine gun to eradicate his foes, and is said to have enjoyed every one of his 15 kills. He once shot a man on the other side of a bar in the head on a dare, fought off three assailants from his hospital bed with his broken leg suspended in the air, and shot his mistress – and her dogs – after an argument. When McErlane was succumbing to pneumonia, he punched one of his nurses and required the services of three orderlies to hold him down as he drew his last breath. Most gangsters are psychotic, habitual killers who seldom live past forty (McErlane made it to thirty-eight). If you can handle the notion that most gangsters are more like Frank than not and some movies don’t have happy endings, you’ll appreciate David Cronenberg’s raw and realistic “Eastern Promises.”
It would have been easy for Cronenberg to make the characters act like the fearless and occasionally noble mobsters we’ve come to love in films like “Public Enemy,” “The Godfather,” and “Goodfellas.” “Eastern Promises” is an insider’s look at a seldom discussed subject – the Vor V Zalone, or “Russian Mafia.” The film confirms what folks in Brooklyn already know. The Russian mob don’t play. They don’t sit down with their enemies for anisette and calzones while their Consigliere’s negotiate a peace. They turn their foes into pieces.
The plot centers around Nikolai Luzhin (a menacing Viggo Mortensen) an obedient, tight-lipped soldier who quickly rises through the ranks in one of London’s Russian mobs. Nikolai’s answer to every probing question is, “I am just a driver.” His cut and dried response, a modified version of Sergeant Schultz’s claim of “I know nothing” – is no joke. If Nikolai says he doesn’t know anything, it’s his way of saying he knows everything. He’s an unflinching, silent predator. When Anna, (steadfast Naomi Watts, the film’s conscience), a midwife at London’s Trafalgar Hospital first sees Nikolai, he’s a chauffer for the morally bankrupt Kirill (slimy and cowardly Vincent Cassel), the drunken son of mob boss Semyon, (a reptilian Armin Mueller-Stahl), who runs his illegal operations out of the Trans-Siberian restaurant.
Anna has come to Semyon’s restaurant because Tatiana, a 14-year old patient of hers, died in child birth, and among her possessions were a business card for the restaurant and a diary. Anna tells Semyon about the diary, and he eagerly offers to translate it for her. Taken aback, she says her Uncle Stepan is already translating it. Despite knowing little about the seemingly charming Semyon, Anna can sense he has a personal interest in the diary and is capable of harming Titania’s baby if he doesn’t get it. She’s also leery of the elusive Nikolai, even after he drives her home after her motorcycle breaks down. To placate Semyon and protect the baby, Anna gives Semyon a copy of the diary and keeps the original.
Semyon shows up at the hospital, having easily slipped by security, a fact not lost on Anna. He admits to her that his son Kirill is mentioned numerous times in the diary. If the police ever got hold of it, he says Kirill will be jailed and his business will be ruined. He offers Anna a deal. In exchange for the original diary, he’ll give Anna the address of Tatiana’s parents. When Anna tells Uncle Stepan about the deal, he’s incensed. The real reason Semyon wants the diary he says, is because Tatiana wrote in it that she was raped, and she names her rapist, the man who is also the father of her child. “Don’t be fooled,” Uncle Stepan warns Anna. “You can’t make a deal with these people.”
Nikolai is sent as Semyon’s emissary to collect the diary from Anna, her uncle and mother. When Anna asks for the address, Nikolai replies dryly, “I don’t know nothin’ about any address.” He leaves and she follows him with the relentlessness of a pit bull, intent on getting the information. “Stay away from people like me,” Nikolai warns her. He should have warned Uncle Stepan, who spits in Nikolai’s face, the equivalent of signing his death warrant. (The warrant already was issued by Semyon the moment he found out Uncle Stepan was translating the diary.) Semyon orders Nikolai to “take care of” Uncle Stepan, who promptly disappears. Semyon burns the diary.
But Semyon’s troubles are not over. Earlier, Kirill had ordered Azim (deliciously smarmy Mina E. Mina), who fronts his illegal operations as a barber, to give Soyka, one of Kirill’s rivals, a fatal close shave. When the dead man’s brothers find out, they seek vengeance on Kirill, who’s too awash in booze and underage prostitutes to care. Semyon sponsors Nikolai’s promotion to captain in the mob so he can help protect Kirill…Or has Nikolai been promoted so he can be a stand in target for the vengeful Soyka brothers? With his promotion, Nikolai is given a series of star tattoos that identify him as a high ranking member of Semyon’s gang. He now has the same star tattoos in virtually the same places as Kirill. While Nikolai and Azim are discussing business in a sauna, Azim excuses himself. Azim tells the two Soyka brothers that Kirill is in the sauna (“You will recognize him by the star tattoos on his chest”), and they attack Nikolai, thinking he’s Kirill. A hemoglobin-splattering, anything goes knife fight ensues, with the Sokya brothers taken to the morgue, and a slashed, stomped and beaten Nikolai rushed to Trafalgar Hospital, where he encounters Anna, who wants to know what has happened to her uncle.
Anna: My uncle, the one who spit in your face, do you know where he is?
Nikolai: Scotland. Edinburgh. Four star hotel. I was told to send him to heaven with a bullet in his head. I sent him to Edinburgh to a four star hotel instead. He’s old school. He understands. Exile or death.
Why would Nikolai spare a man he was ordered to kill? Love? That’s too simple and too pat an answer, and it would have cheapened an impeccable film. Nikolai’s motives become clearer when he receives an unexpected visitor.
Desperate to clear his name, Semyon sends Kirill to the hospital to dispose of the baby. In the end it’s Kirill who holds everyone fate in his hands.
There are a number of graphic, hold down your chow vendettas carried out in the film. You can sense what’s going to happen in Azim’s barbershop in the very first scene – even of the victim can’t. It’s just a question of whether the hit will go down like the one on Albert Anastasia (potentially disastrous, with the victim surprisingly resilient, jumping out of the barber chair even after being perforated) or if it’ll be a bloody, but efficient Jack-you’re-dead ear to ear shave and a haircut. Mortenson’s Full Monty acrobatics are stunning during his battle in the steam bath, but the manner in which he disposes of the brothers will make you gasp not once, but twice (once for each Sokya). Mortensen’s nudity makes the savagery of the attack all the more shocking. (You’d probably have to be real incensed not to feel the slightest shame about killing an unarmed, nude man). Although it’s most riveting scene in the movie, I didn’t need to see Viggo’s junk bouncing around the screen. (Now that’s really exposing yourself for the sake of the film.) The steam room battle royal is one the most graphic and defining gangster hits on screen, nearly in the same league as Sonny Corleone (James Caan) getting riddled at the toll booth in “The Godfather.”
With a taut, event driven script, Cronenberg doesn’t need a cast of thousands to create a memorable classic. Almost all the main actors give career performances, and even those in supporting roles look and act like part of the well woven fabric of the Russian underworld. Viggo Mortensen, who traveled to some of Russian’s seamier environments to study gangs like the Vor V Zalone, has mastered the steely silence of a mob soldier whose tattoos and actions tell more about him than words ever could. Armin Mueller-Stahl skillfully balances the duplicitous character of Semyon, part erudite gentleman of the arts, part iron-fisted, cruel patriarch who will do anything to protect his family and business. He looks like your kindly Uncle Misha, but acts like Joseph Stalin in full purge mode. Vincent Cassel has perhaps the most difficult role, portraying a spoiled drunk who feels threatened by the growing bond between his father and Nikolai, yet needs Nikolai for companionship and protection. A large part of Kirill is still a scared little boy. He literally cowers at his father’s feet to the point where Nikolai has to speak up for him. Another part of Kirill, the one he wants the world to believe is really him, is a violent, unpredictable bully. Kirill has erected a tough guy persona he thinks no one can see through, although his love for alcohol shows the exact opposite is true. Cassel is at his best when Kirill faces his moment of truth – Cassel is able to turn the irresponsible, hot-headed drunken Kirill into a real person, and the audience is able to relate to and sympathize with the war going on in Kirill between his conscience and his sense of duty.
Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski ably handles the role of gruff Stepan without turning him into a caricature, and anytime Mina E. Mina is on camera he’s so effectively unsavory you’ll feel like taking a shower. (Just don’t go in the sauna with him.) I have my reservations about Anna, the main character. Most people with a brain stem would steer clear of Nikolai after their first encounter, and certainly after he tells her to stay away from him. Yet this 98-pound midwife is so determined to get justice for a slain 14 year-old prostitute that she’s willing to take on London’s Russian mob? I doubt it. Watts does a good job with an implausible character; you almost believe someone as altruistic as Anna really could exist.
Extra Mob Hits: The Bonus Features
The extras include the interview-laden “Secrets and Stories” and “Marked For Life.” In “Secrets and Stories,” director Cronenberg owns up that the original plot for the film focused on the prostitution of young Russian girls in America. When a Ukrainian politician was poisoned, putting the sinister inner workings of the mob in the press, Cronenberg thought it would be more interesting to tell a story about the lesser-known Russian Mafia and make prostitution the back story. He was right. Cronenberg also shares his concern that about Naomi Watts’ character (she was the only actress he felt could play the role), and whether or not the audience would be interested in a film with no love interest. Although there’s some obvious chemistry between Nikolai and Anna (in another lifetime they might have been lovers), Cronenberg wanted to make their characters more like “ships in the night,” rather than burden the storyline’s credibility with a preposterous affair between a moral woman and a heartless hit man. Right again, David.
“Marked For Life” concentrates on Mortensen’s research into the Russian mob and the significance of Russian gang tattoos. The tattoos serve as a criminal’s visual history – Nikolai’s show the prisons he’s been in, his status as a thief, and later in the film, his promotion as an elite captain in Semyon’s family. Real life tattoo artist Olegar Fedoro, who plays the same role in the film, explains that the star tattoos Nikolai receives in the film have the same status as an officer’s epaulettes, and anyone who has the nerve to wear a counterfeit “Vor,” is subject to having that part of their body sliced off. Mortensen relates a less chilling tale involving his tattoos, which we learn are washable. One night after filming, he left the tattoos on and went out to dinner. A Russian couple spotted the markings on his hands and became very nervous when he looked at them. After that, Mortensen washed his tattoos off every night.
Real life experiences are not always tied up in nice neat bows. Unlike most films in the genre, there are a number of unresolved plots that scream “Eastern Promises II.” Until then, remember to pack a knife with you when you go into a steam room, and don’t tell your barber you want a close shave.