Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Movie Review: Eastern Promises

If there was a Career Revival 101 course, the director of this movie should definitely run it.

I'm referring of course to David Cronenberg, he of 80s classic Videodrome fame.

But Videodrome wasn't the whole story. Consider for a moment The Brood (an early one that is a truly nasty-ass horror flick featuring one of Ollie Reed's finest turns) and what about Dead Ringers, one of the most bizarre stories ever to feature not one, but two Jeremy Irons's! Then, of course, there's The Fly and The Dead Zone, one of the best Stephen King adaptations around.

Hell, in the opinion of this hack, Cronenberg is right up there with Sam Riami and George Romero in the pantheon of the gods when it comes to the horror genre...

But then something happened.

What that was I'm not entirely sure, but he seemed to lose the plot for a while, with oddball outings like Crash and ExistenZ and plain turkeys like Spider. Until that is, A History of Violence, when he came roaring back with a vengeance (and got a nomination for Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in the bargain, followed by two Oscar nominations. Hooah!).

So I'm really stoked to report that Eastern Promises is proof positive that HOV was no flash in the old pan. Cronenberg is back, people!

Perhaps the catalyst for this revival is that he has in Viggo Mortenson a leading man who can deliver the kind of low-key intensity interspersed with moments of extreme violence that seems to turn him on.

That's right... make no mistake, Cronenberg is still one sick puppy, he's just moved his unique skillsets and warped vision away from the horror genre and into the realm of adult entertainment (no, not that kind).

So in Eastern Promises we again have Viggo, only this time he's a Russian mob enforcer, Nikolai. Nikolai sports some seriously suave suits (and a faintly ridiculous pompadour hairdo which fortunately doesn't detract from his air of steely menace) but they can't hide his tattoos.

Tattoos which tell you that Nikolai is one bad-ass dude, who despite his low-key manner, is the go-to guy when you need the nasty jobs done.

Nikolai is a member of the Russian mob, headed up by Semyon, played magnificently by Armin Meuller-Stahl. Semyon comes across all cosy cardigans and twinkly eyed charm, like your favourite Grandfather. Until it turns out he's actually a stone psycho who's about as close to Santa Claus as Klaus Barbie.

Rounding out the key players is Naomi Watts, as radiant as ever, and the ever-reliable French boyo Vincent Cassel as Kirill, Semyon's wastrel son. Both deliver in spades.

Eastern Promises is a simple little flick, without any grand setpieces or even gunplay. It is, however, anchored by a fabulous knife fight in a Turkish bathhouse, which will be particularly thrilling for the ladies, as it features Viggo butt nekkid, fighting off two assassins with his bare hands.

The camera hides nothing (and takes us a little closer to an actor's asshole than I usually care to get), but you can't deny the courage it must have taken for Viggo to agree to do it. It's raw, savage and puts the fanciful choreographed gunplay you see in most gangster flicks these days to shame.

However, what really makes Eastern Promises such a fantastic entertainment (other than the great performances all round) is the superb script by Steven Knight, the restrained direction from Mr Cronenberg and the rain-soaked London setting.

Luckily for us horror freaks, Cronenberg is not entirely done with the corn syrup, and dips into his SFX box for a great little scene where Viggo has to remove the fingers off a corpse and another bit where a guy gets his throat graphically slashed. I'm happy to report he's lost none of his skills for stomach-turning gore, but here it's strictly employed in service of the story.

Verdict: Rocks hard!

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