Eastern Promises (2007)
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On the surface, Eastern Promises is a straightforward crime story about people who don't appear to be terribly complex. But somehow, the combination of the narrative, the mood, and the humanness of the characters create an alchemy that transcends this film from something that could have been common into something quite unique and memorable. Noirish settings, dedicated medical professionals, and mobsters and their loyal henchmen are all commonplace enough in movies as to risk being clichés. Yet everything in this film about a London midwife who stumbles into contact with the Russian mob as she seeks clues to the identity of a teen who died in childbirth mesh together wonderfully and fully engage the viewer.
While it all starts with the script, credit must be given to the director, David Cronenberg for bringing it to life, and for the cast, who created living, breathing characters who the viewer cares about- whether they are likable or not, good or evil, or not quite so easy to read. They seem real.
At the core of the film is "Nikolai," the loyal chauffeur to the kingpin's volatile son. "Nikolai" is both enigmatic and mesmerizing. We know he is a man with a past and with secrets, but we really don't know what his goals and motives are. We don't know who he is, yet somehow, just as the half-Russian midwife, "Anna", we are drawn to him and trust that there is goodness in him, even as were are not quite sure we should. It is a skillful, yet understated performance that quietly blows you away.
Although Eastern Promises has some of the director's signature moments of eye-popping violence, they do not dominate this film and it is the quiet moments- where the characters are silently contemplating aspects of their own existence that give the film its power. We can see the introspection and pain on their faces, but the script leaves so much unsaid, and so much about the two main characters (played by Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts) we come to care about so much remain a beautiful, haunting mystery.
I didn't go in expecting non-Russian actors to suddenly have no accent, but I did have hesitations about the pronunciation, that usually tends to be horrible. Not so here, despite the accent (that was slight), the intonation, the way the characters cary themselves especially Mortinssen's are very Russian. (Even his less then perfect English sounds Russia when he misses articles: "Not good place for girl to grow up.") Overall the director shows a bit of what a real SinCity looks like. Violence is like a snap of a whip, sudden and loud. The movie is very stylish, but without trying to be so. It's just how these people like to live their lifes. A lot has been said about acting and it is true Mortinssen really delivers. All the auther actors are great too though, there is no weak link in this movie.
Anyway the bottom line: The most authentic movie about Russian mobsters that the west has produced so far. Furthermore I find the only aspect in which it looses to the Godfather is scope. Although the movie is complete I can not help, but to want for more. The best film I've seen this year.
Only after you hold your breath, cover your eyes, and get through the movie do you realize how "Eastern Promises" manages to contradict Friedrich Nietzsche effectively. The German philosopher's "Beyond Good and Evil" denied the possibility of a universal morality. Cronenberg's film says that ethics - without expectation of rewards, in this life or a possible other one - can prevail even in the depths of great evil. The "History of Violence" director continues his subtle, subtext theme of upholding Anne Frank's belief that "in spite of everything people are really good at heart," and he does so without a smidgen of sentimentality.
There is no goodness in evidence as Viggo Mortensen's scary Russian mobster does every bidding of Armin Mueller-Stahl's chilling godfather figure, ruling ruthlessly over a family, which includes his son, a monster out of control, played brilliantly by Vincent Cassel (son of Jean-Pierre Cassel).
During a pre-release press tour, Cronenberg spoke of his wish to present "provocative, juicy stories... with complexity... showing that all monsters are sentimental and have some kind of relationship to a moral compass." That is all true, but what makes "Eastern Promises" so appealing is that there is no pop psychology (or worse, pop philosophy) in or about it. The film hits you over the head with its magnificently written story (Steven Knight, of "Dirty Pretty Things"), not with a message.
The title, on one level, refers to promises made to young women in Russia, luring them to the West, where the Mob enslaves them as prostitutes. It is one of these drugged and brutalized women whose death opens the film, and brings an English nurse (Naomi Watts) into the story.
As a multitude of promises, threats and tragedies unfolds, you get the maximum out of "Eastern Promises" with minimum advance knowledge of its story. Initially, that is. When you return to see it again, it won't matter that you'll know how it ends, you will want to re-experience what is certain to become a classic film. ("Eastern Promises" was shown at the Toronto Festival last week, opened in San Francisco today, goes nationwide on Sept. 21.)
As a long-time fan of Cronenberg's work, it is interesting for me to see his recent films grab the public attention in such a mainstream way. While it is true that both "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" feature less obviously fantastic elements than, say, "The Fly" or "Scanners", Cronenberg's uniquely clinical and undramatic visual and storytelling style remain intact throughout all of his films. Nothing in a David Cronenberg film appears on- screen without a reason. He's sort of the film-making equivalent of Ernest Hemingway: a deceptively simple, unflinching eye; a calm surface that somehow manages to get under your skin and hints at labyrinthine depths beneath. Cronenberg's work always makes you uncomfortable, but here in "Eastern Promises", it is done very subtly, almost subliminally, so you find yourself thinking about it afterward without realizing it.
The acting in Eastern Promises is uniformly excellent. Viggo Mortensen's Nikolai, in particular, displays a still, coiled menace that is chilling and intense, which plays well against Vincent Cassel's portrayal of the feral Kirill, whose confused and tortured attempts to live up to his father's criminal expectations set the plot in motion, and Armin Mueller-Stahl's stunningly nuanced performance as the crime boss Semyon: Satan dressed up as your favorite uncle at Christmastime. As Anna, unwittingly tossed into this den of serpents, Naomi Watts manages to be simultaneously vulnerable and tenacious in a role for which she will doubtless receive too little credit.
Cronenberg's no-nonsense approach to violence is still in evidence here, from the shockingly bloody opening scene, to one remarkably brutal fight sequence that deserves to be written down in the annals of film history, and is so astonishing that it isn't until afterward that you register the fact that Viggo Mortensen did the whole thing completely nude. But, in the end, it is the sinuous undercurrent of hope, the trickle of humanity that manages to somehow exist amongst these desperate characters, that sticks with me in this film. The writing hints at things rather than stating them, the muted "film noir" visual style enhances this, and even the "big plot twist" near the end of the story (that I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you) is handled with the most minimalist of gestures. I swear, sometime soon David Cronenberg is going to discover the meaning of life in a black screen.
There really is no way to perfectly describe Eastern Promises without giving a few juicy details away. It revolves around a Russian crime circuit in London, headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and includes his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill's driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, gets involved within the circuit unknowingly when she attempts to get a diary, recently left by a teenage mother who died during childbirth, translated from Russian into English.
The plot is really not that complicated, but giving a full description ruins the little idiosyncrasies and poignant character moments shared within the film. Oscar-nominee Steve Knight has constructed a gritty, atmospheric thriller that starts up quick and then slows down to a nice steady pace, just so the audience can catch its breath and brood over the workings of the cast. It is dialogue driven, but when it is not being sly or darkly comedic, it plays out like an opera. We gradually learn all the intimate details of every sketchy character, and we get a deeper sense of just how bad some of these characters are. It is not just a paint-by-numbers depiction of bad men, it is a highly detailed and clearly articulate character study. And even at its dullest moments, it works excellently.
Kudos also goes to Cronenberg's go to cinematographer, Peter Suschitsky. London and its drab and depressing climate are beautifully represented here from the first frame, all the way up to the last. Even when the sun is out, the sets have a certain subdued haze over them. We are watching a film about the criminal underbelly, and its settings help reflected just how low these people are in their moral standings. It works greatly in favour of the film, and it almost works as a character in itself. The drab, almost noir, settings help achieve the dirty politics of the film, and they help explore the character studies even further. Whether it's the scariness of watching Mortensen in the dark, or just looking at the glare of Mueller-Stahl in his dimmed restaurant, all of the details have been amped up on each set to give the audience a greater sense of understanding and purpose, for just about every character.
And what Cronenberg film would be without some bizarrely violent visuals? While not exactly a bloodbath, Cronenberg does have a few moments where he paints the screen a bright shade of scarlet red. And when it begins to flow, there is nothing that can really stop it. It works much in the same way as it did in Violence, in that the film builds to a scene loaded with it and just lets loose in a ferocious manner unlike any well-known director currently working in the mainstream on movies that are not specifically horror (with obvious exceptions to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez). It has that Cronenbergian touch, and much like his other films, its style is impeccable and thought-provoking.
Another fantastic element is the score by Howard Shore. It slows when it needs to, and it quickens even faster. It plays out wonderfully throughout the scenes, and gives them a sort of classy feel. I realize I used the opera description before, but it fits even better here. Its great workings underpin every scene, and help dictate just how well off the film is.
What hurts the film (besides some very bizarre choices by Watts' character) is the denouement. It works, but I just cannot fathom how neither Knight nor Cronenberg thought it was appropriate for the story that was taking place. It just does not have the solid impact that every other scene either has, or builds to. I sat, almost dumbfounded, trying to figure out who thought it was a good idea, and why no one told them to re-write it. But I will say, much like Violence, Promises has an absolutely stunning final moment. But to get to that astounding moment, you have to sit through a rather disappointing finale.
If you thought you had seen Mortensen's best work before Promises, then you will be in for a very big surprise. His cold and calculating performance as Nikolai is the stuff that creates legends. He is menacing from the word go, and even as the enigmatic slowly becomes the well-known, you will just stare in fear and awe as he speaks on screen. From the terrifying tattoos, to a small character moment where he puts out a cigarette on his tongue, Mortensen is the quintessential image of evil. His unrestrained anger is felt throughout the film, and hopefully, will be just the right performance to launch him into the stratosphere of Oscar-nominated actors. Even during the let-down of an ending, he keeps up, and never lets anyone down.
The rest of the cast, albeit nowhere near as strong as Mortensen, are all very good supporting characters. Watts' character may have issues, but she breathes a certain life into the naïve character that I doubt many others could match. Much the same goes for Cassel and Mueller-Stahl, who bring just the right amount of intensity to their roles.
Although it is flawed, Cronenberg has delivered yet another exceptional thriller. It will surely be recognized at Oscar time, and for good reason too. Do not miss it.
Some real edge of your seat moments in this instant classic. Set in dark wet, and noir London, Eastern Promises takes a look into a Russian Gangster mentality and culture with some scenes that will make both your skin crawl and your heart ache. This is one tough and nasty thriller. Not for the squeamish.
A twisted morality tale of family dynamics, gang loyalty and one possible way the Good Guys just might usurp the Bad. Every principal character etches a note that resonates true to the scale of the story. And its an excellent dark dark black hearted story full of places and people that you just hope this movie is as close as you ever get to them. Genuinely bad characters with such exquisite details that it doesn't feel like fiction.
Go see it. Pleasant nightmares!
Cronenberg (and his friend Peter Suschistky) have created another universe that seems another version of ours. As usual it is a mental one, but so close to what we call "reality" that it makes you uncomfortable and eventually horrified. The cast is fantastic and the script is brilliant.
It's a little wonder that there haven't been too many serious movies about the Russian Mafia, yet, so having a movie that takes place in these circles is fascinating all by itself. Cronenberg sets the story up slowly, but nicely. He never falls into the trap of slowing things down too much as he did with his previous two movies. Cronenberg also avoids getting too close to the style of the genre's Big Kahuna, Martin Scorsese. This is a completely original effort, which sets it apart from 2007's snorefest "American Gangster", that didn't contribute anything new to the gangster genre at all.
The cast is, of course, very helpful. Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassell look threatening, cold-blooded and emotional all at the same time. You really forget the actors and start looking at them as the characters they embody. Armin Mueller-Stahl who plays the gangster boss wasn't quite as convincing. During the movie we hear all those cruel and crazy things he's done, but when we see him on screen we can't really imagine that he's capable of all that. The weakest link in the cast, however, is Naomi Watts, who plays the same way she always does and comes across as pretty one-dimensional. She has deservedly gotten a lot of praise for "Mullholland Dr." but failed to present a comparably great performance ever since. She's just good enough not to ruin the intensity of this movie.
"Eastern Promises" is aesthetic, explicit and thrilling. There are some scenes you won't forget for weeks to come (the sauna fight, the opening sequence). In short, what we have here is a modern classic. One of last year's finest and possibly the best movie David Cronenberg has made so far.
The tone is overbearingly ominous, the violence is visceral and the tale told is truly tragic, but it draws you in further with every moment. There are some strong similarities to the likes of other dower mafia movies, such as Road to Perdition, but this film delves into one of the most interesting and terrifying criminal organizations still active today with the Russian mob, also known as the Bratva, or Brotherhood.
Cronenberg brings a dangerous criminal syndicate's daily dirty deeds to life in such a way that you can feel the muck flying from the screen. This is by no means a movie for the faint of heart, or stomach strength, but it is a cinematic classic nonetheless. I only hold back a perfect score due to the desire I felt for a more defined conclusion, but the build up to it was much more than good enough for a near perfect 9 out of 10 in my eyes.
After "A History of Violence", David Cronenberg makes another engaging an d violent thriller with the excellent actor Viggo Mortensen. His character recalls the one he performed in the magnificent "American Yakuza" in the beginning of his successful career. After the Italian mobsters, Latin drug dealers and Yakuza, it seems that Russian Mafia and human trafficking are the present mobster organization and business explored by the cinema industry. In addition to the great direction of Cronenberg, the performances of Vincent Cassell and Armin Mueller-Stahl are top-notch and Naomi Watts is efficient as usual. In the end, "Eatern Promises" is a great entertainment. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Senhores do Crime" ("Lords of the Crime")
It rains just as much in Cronenberg's London as it does in the real London. The rain ushers in the heavy yet steady hand of this director, whose work always seems to be weighed down by a looming sense of despair and discomfort. Still, though the viewer is pulled into a world where cutting the tips off of fingers and slitting throats is just as normal as a well-balanced breakfast, nothing is so simple as good and evil as absolutes. Like the sky the rain is falling from, everyone is surrounded by an ambiguous grey. Naomi Watts plays a mid-wife named Anna. On one tragic evening, Anna helps to bring a baby into the world at the expense of the very young, heroine-addicted mother's life. She does not want to see the child fall into the system as the girl cannot be identified to find her next of kin so she makes it her mission to find the girl's family before this can happen. It may all seem noble but her saintly act also serves to appease the pain she has felt since the miscarriage of her own child months before. She couldn't save her baby but she can certainly try to help this one. Her search leads her directly to the door of the Russian mafia and this is where she meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). At the moment, Nikolai is just the driver but he's got hopes to one day be part of the real family. He would be perfect for the job as he is calculated and cold when he needs to be but then again not so as he also takes the time to encourage the slave sex- worker he's just been with to find a better life. People are complicated; Cronenberg knows this and this is what gives EASTERN PROMISES its depth.
Though regular Cronenberg cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, guides EASTERN PROMISES with a tranquil glide that sets the pace as both unnerving and engrossing, it is Mortensens's performance as an aspiring mafioso with a nagging sense of compassion that is most memorable and moving. His face is harsh and guarded behind his dark sunglasses and beneath his slicked back, immaculately placed hair lies a mystery that is being heavily protected. His presence is daunting as he steps from a black town car, dressed to match, from his shoes to his gloves. He is naturally imposing and his icy composure and unflinching dedication to his superiors make him frightening without really trying. He is not so much trying to intimidate others into submission though but rather to keep them away. Yet there is something about him that inspires those around him to see a reason to trust him. Perhaps it is his reliability or perhaps it is just that you know once you meet him that you would rather have him on your side than on the other. Mortensen, working with Cronenberg for the second time after his tortured performance in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, is transformed and nearly unrecognizable as Nikolai. And while his character is extremely guarded, he still manages to find himself in a very naked position before the film's end, in what is a shocking and exhilarating fight sequence that finds Cronenberg, as God, going after Nikolai when he is at his most vulnerable. Proving himself to be a vengeful God, Cronenberg punishes his character for allowing himself to relax for three seconds to appreciate his success.
The fight sequence is already being heralded as one for the books that will be talked about for years to come. I have a feeling we will be hearing just as much talk about Mortensen's performance, Steven Knight's script and Cronenberg's direction come awards season. After setting the groundwork with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (which I actually do prefer over EASTERN PROMISES just because it left me with more on my mind), the mainstream film community seems finally ready to reward one of its veteran contributors. If you're going to sell out, I can't imagine a better way to do it.
An orphaned baby's mother leaves behind a diary with all kinds of mafia secrets which is discovered and for some reason allowed to remain in the possession of the nurse on duty at the time (Naomi Watts) instead of the police. Leaving aside the fact that the diary plot device is more stale than Shakespeare allusions, the movie then throws in this chauffeur character (Mortensen), and the audience can tell within 5 minutes that he knows way more than Cassel's character and is probably a secret agent. However, this possibility never occurs even to the hardened mafia types after the chauffeur arranges for a whore he slept with to be arrested and sent back to her home. One is left by the end of the movie, after witnessing this mafia's inept attempts to protect itself from a very obvious threat, to wonder how they could possibly have stayed in power for more than a few weeks.
Cassel is the main saving grace of the film -- as a self-tortured repressed homosexual who's always dangerously close to releasing his energy in the form of violence on relatively innocent people, his volatile energy keeps the film going. The performances in general are very good, as Cronenberg knows how to work with the actor to bring out something interesting regardless of the material. But it's a shame to see the director and the cast trying to put meat on such a poor animal's bones. I greatly preferred the previous Mortensen/Cronenberg collaboration, "A History of Violence." There were some moments of this film that seemed to reach for territory even beyond that film's deliberately limited pallet, but the structure of the story wasn't strong enough for me to support or sustain those moments.
I see "Eastern Promises" as an interesting failure. Ultimately the characters are more interesting than anything in the story, which is not inherently bad but is rather demanding towards the actors. Most carried through in this film, but it lacked a certain focus and vitality that the best films should have.
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It's an insulated world, where double-edged personalities are common, especially if a crime boss/father like Armin Mueller-Stahl's character Semyon and at one time he has to be kind and compassionate to those outside of the circle. Like Naomi Watts's midwife character, who first comes to him about this mystery baby and a girl's diary written in Russian. But there's always the sensation, even early on, that he's a lot more sinister, a lot more cruel and vicious than he would let on to any "ordinary" person, and this is all the more apparent in his quick outbursts against his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell). Kirill, of course, is like a lone black sheep of the family, who gets into trouble with other families, usually through killing somebody in all late hours of the night. Nikolai (Mortensen) is the driver/bodyguard/foot-soldier to Kirill and the rest of the family, and has a bond that goes beyond what Kirill has- he's really like a 'good' son, if anything at all, to Seymon. Some of the best scenes in any Cronenberg film are those that are filled with an unspoken tension, and understanding of the dynamics, when Nikolai settles a situation between Seymon and Kirill, or those subdued homo-erotic moments from Kirill to Nikolai.
Many of those scenes, the whole story arc of Nikolai, is a truly compelling tale that soon reveals itself- and not to reveal too much here as to make it spoiling- as part of Cronenberg's aesthetic of the double-sided nature of a man, or the duality inherent in certain types. But suffice to say, it's one of the coolest examples, even if it might seem almost conventional at first, because of what Nikolai's future will come to following the fight he has in the steam-house. While we see the more emotional story of Anna who, like Nikolai, is an outsider who is put into a somewhat torn situation (albeit Nikolai, unlike Anna, is far more cunning, and as he says to her at one point he is a 'bad' guy), her side of the story is more of something to keep things moving along- the fate of the diary, the baby, the whole ball of wax of secrets surrounding the mother's death and so on. This is all still compelling, in sad voice-overs, but somehow Anna's side is more of a base-line to the saga of the Russian family, which is appropriate. Her ending, which seems tidied up on the surface, has an open-ending that feels almost TOO tidy- however if you're thinking that ambiguity is lacking, it actually nears up to what History of Violence offered in a 'what next' kind of query to the audience.
As modern thrillers should be, as Cronenberg and his screenwriter knows, Eastern Promises is efficient, startling, and often as entertaining as the goofiest moments of any film by the director. Only here its in little moments of dialog (was Anna's uncle in the KGB...maybe not, but as an auxiliary?), not so much in outrageousness or super-gore. And yet it's also probably even more violent, if only in the suddenness, than History of Violence; the much hyped steam-room right with Mortensen fending off the two gangsters lives up to it, as it's as visceral as Oldboy's classic sequence, and with an energy and shock value that made everyone in the audience I saw it with yelp and cringe. But Cronenberg isn't simply going by shock value here- Eastern Promises is very strong as classic storytelling, and even better in the acting department. Mortensen is one of Cronenberg's very best male collaborator/stars, and here his work is, if anything, more subtle and textured than the last one (which is saying a lot of both director and actor); Mueller-Stahl gives maybe his best performance since the 80s, a sure Oscar contender if I've ever seen one; Watts is sublime in a role that requires her mostly to be uneasy around Russian mobsters and frightened by the fear all around the situation; Cassell is about as taut as can be imaginable, and at the same time projecting the pathetic subtext to Kirill's boasting masculinity and stupidity.
If you're planning on seeing any crime movie this year- that isn't directed by the Coen brothers- and one that is atmospheric without hyper-stylization, and grips the intellect just as much as the emotions, Eastern Promises is it. In a career of some of the most challenging probes of men on the edge of sanity and/or reason, Cronenberg continues to strike where the iron is hot, or just not seen to even be considered grounds for striking at all.
If Viggo Mortensen fighting naked in a London steam bath with some bad Chechens doesn't interest you, then perhaps I can offer you a second-tier Godfather with strong family "values" and exceptional acting. Director David Cronenberg in Eastern Promises comes through again with realistic violence and depressing ambiance, cast over by a humanity that even the Godfather has trouble matching.
Mid-wife Anna (Naomi Watts) happens on a prostitute's volatile diary in the emergency room. The London Russian mob, vory v zachone, wants it back because it implicates the son of kingpin Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Shine) in crimes. Driver to the mob, but good guy deep down, Nikolai (Mortensen), serves as the agent collecting the diary and carrying out the fate of those who have read it. As in most mob stories, loyalty is coin of the realm, so much so that even children of a don are not exempt from the rigid code. As in Dirty Pretty Things, young girls like body parts are bought and sold like slaves in a careless market.
Cronenberg's worlds are usually violent, topsy-turvy, and peopled by bipolar miscreants who have accepted the dangers in hope of riches or power but at the same time fight with themselves over the moral implications. So too in Eastern Promises where a helpless newborn topples a kingmaker and makes virtuous royalty of others. Getting the throne or that royalty is tough for Nikolai, whose naked fight to the death in the bath is a tour de force of violent ballet, even discounting Mortensen's other-worldly physique. Cronenberg's fascination with the body's vulnerability is memorable here, stripped down and utterly alone, like birth and death.
The majesty of Coppola's Godfather is partly here but more diluted; the array of complex characters in the Corleone family just is not duplicated. Yet Mueller-Stahl has Brando's quiet authority and Mortensen Pacino's quietly dangerous charm (when he says, "I live in the zone all the time," you can't help but wonder what secret turmoil lives in his heart). Neither Eastern Promises actor can possibly surpass those Godfather icons, but they and the film are promising affiliates of the royal gangland canon.
Through a series of coincidences during a transitory period in the wars between various groups, a nurse comes into possession of a diary that contains some sensitive information. Inadvertently, she walks into the lion's liar and becomes acquainted with several key players. As the story becomes more and more complex, things become more intense and riskier for all the parties involved.
Executions are ruthless, decisions are made without regard to consequence and the feelings of the innocent. Cronenberg directs with a sure hand and is put together scenes that recall Coppola at his best while making the original Godfather. There are layers of complexity bringing together the history of the families, the ethnic tensions, the feelings between the killers and their own families, all down much economically than Coppola did. This film runs under two hours and makes quite an impact, leaving its audience wanting more, in particular about the future of the Viggo character... a man who is able to handle the worst of situations and might have more ambitions than are obvious when we first meet the players.
This film is not for the weak, with plenty of graphic violence, and some emotional moments that people might not be able to handle. After all, the game is played differently, depending on who the players are, and this time the players are ruthless.
The problem starts if one takes the movie seriously as some kind of gangster drama or as some kind of glance into the world of real Russian mafia. Then, the whole thing falls apart right from the beginning. For someone who grew up in Russia and had any remote contacts with gangsters the mafia portrayed in this piece of fantasy is no more realistic as the orcs in the Lord of the Rings.
First of all, no organized crime group would call themselves "vory v zakone". It's plain ridiculous. Then, the whole switching of languages thing looks really schizophrenic. You constantly see the "Russian" gangsters exchanging phrases in some kinda pidgin Russian and then repeating the same thing to each other in English. It's just ludicrous as well as the words they say in Russian are so out of otuch with what the real Russians might say in the relevant situation. It's hard to believe that in a movie with such a budget they couldn't hire some Russians to do the work. Cassel in fact was the only one whose accent remotely reminded meRussian. The worst came from Mortensen who despite claiming to visitRussia and practice for the role inside the country totally fails to look anything close to what a Russian man would look and sound.
Then, the way they execute each other and all these "Chechens" with little knives is again so remote from reality. In real world they just shoot the victims early in the morning while they are going out of the house and not run after them in the public sauna armed with tiny knives. The God fathers gathering to admit the new member is again director's fantasy. In real world none of them busy people would bother to come together in order to hire a little man. In real world a mafia newcomer would never have chance to talk to all the bosses at once. Then, I had an impression that the fearsome criminal organization where Viggo infiltrated himself consists of only the father, his son Cyill and him, nobody else. I could go on and on about all the mismatches but I guess the realism wasn't the driving force behind the making of the movie, so let it be what it is- a stylized B rated piece of mafia-fantasy.
Though Eastern Promises doesn't completely deliver, it's an accomplished film in many respects, the supporting cast, production design and cinematography provide an authentic atmosphere, and a couple of set pieces will undoubtedly provoke strong reactions.
As others have pointed out, this movie was basically cut in two with a dreadfully slow and rather uneventful first hour and a somewhat more pacey last half. Far too many scenes were much longer than was necessary and often annoyed me as yet another ten minutes passed and nothing worthy of note happened.
I also have to comment on the most of the time incredibly weak script and laboured acting (although the two can't really be judged separately) by many of the actors who tried to portray a culture which was clearly not their own. I also thought that the constant switching between English and Russian in the dialog was pretty annoying as it has always been in films. It only made the characters even more stereotypical than they frankly already were. I kept wondering why they didn't simply get a Russian cast.
I Also didn't think the story to be very original or otherwise memorable with a premise which once again in a movie fully relied on an unreal amount of naivety on the part of the protagonist (and the viewer) who was, thus suiting the character, played by a female blond (The ever so gorgeous Naomi Watts), what a horrible cliché. The plottwist was lame and insipid. Also the ending left me feeling terribly disappointed as it simply didn't make a whole lot of sense and also one that looked suspiciously like a set up for yet another even more insipid sequel.
Don't be hoodwinked by the lionizing reviews that dub this movie on par with movies like The Godfather or Goodfellas. It's not even a matter of personal opinion whether it ranks with these cinematic giants or not. Common sense and some perspective will tell you it doesn't. Every movie you will look up here on IMDb, no matter how bad, will have reviews calling it: 'The best film ever made' or 'This year's best' as you will find them here as well. The big fat 8 this movie scores here on IMDb is nothing more than proof that this website has become more and more overpopularised or has been taken advantage of by film-studio companies who flood this site and inflate the polling to sell their products. One should question IMDb's policies on this for it will surely be the end of this website if they can't figure out a proper defense against it soon.
In short: Unremarkable little movie that is certainly not for the average moviegoer who will probably only switch off their interest somewhere during the first (half) hour and hope they can still get their money back. Which will be their second disappointment of the evening.
The only good thing I can say: I liked Naomi Watt's performance; it seemed genuine. Everything else was so fake: fake villains (Russian, Turkish), fake accents, fake story... I mean this was a cartoonish performance. I guess it's what Western people assume Russian gangsters should look like, and the majority of Western viewers will probably buy this crap. Being Russian, I don't. No way. I understand that actors are not Russian, so it's a challenge, but some similar movies (OK, very few movies) manage to address the authenticity part much better (e.g. "Little Odessa" seemed more genuine to me). Viggo Mortensen does not look like Russian. He may be a good actor, but he cannot play a Russian (OK, his Russian is not the worst, but it's far from genuine). BTW, were Mashkov already booked? What about Mironov? Could Cronenberg give Menshikov a call?
Anyway, if you are familiar with Russian culture and value authenticity in movies, you will probably be disappointed; otherwise, give it a try: a lot of people seem to like it.