Eastern Promises

Promising royalty

"Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If Viggo Mortensen fighting naked in a London steam bath with some bad Chechens doesn't interest you, then perhaps I can offer 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 ambience, 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), doing a younger Michael Douglas dimpled danger, 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 might wonder what secret turmoil lives in his heart). Neither Eastern Promises actor can surpass those Godfather icons, but they and the film are promising affiliates of the royal gangland canon.