In "Eastern Promises," David Cronenberg's hellacious new Russian mob movie, Viggo Mortensen finally comes of age as an actor and a movie star.
He plays Nikolai Luzhin, an underling in London's Vory V Zakone criminal organization and a man whose only asset would seem to be that he's best friends with the boss's son. That's only on paper, though. Although he has impressive skills in corpse disposal, Nikolai works as a driver, and when pressed he'll say that's all he is. In a sense he's right: Calm, alert, and frighteningly efficient, he's the figure who drives the plot and the fates of the film's other characters. He's the sudden death you don't see coming until it's too late.
Mortensen plays this role as if he had different blood chemistry than the rest of us. Nikolai remains eerily still until he's moved to act; then he glides forth with reptilian grace. Yet something still glows at the bottom of those half-lidded eyes - enough to suggest the cobra has a soul.
Enough, too, to attract Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), even when her instincts tell her to run the other way. British-born but of Russian descent, Anna is a midwife working at a North London hospital one night when a 14-year-old girl in heavy labor (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) is admitted. The girl dies, leaving behind an infant daughter and a diary written in Cyrillic, which Anna can't read.
A postcard in the diary will lead her to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, the father in "Shine"), an aging and elegant restaurateur who doubles as the ruthless head of the Vory mob. This is also where Anna meets Semyon's excitable son and heir to the empire, Kirill (the French actor Vincent Cassel), as well as Nikolai, initially a sinister figure on the sidelines.
At the mention of the girl's diary, the kingpin's ears prick up and Mueller-Stahl's calculated foxiness comes into play. Of course, he's willing to translate it for Anna, and wouldn't it help to know where she lives? No dummy, she soon senses she's standing at the threshold of a very dangerous universe.
"Eastern Promises" is a genre movie, then - a gangland drama - and it doesn't break free into a larger contemplation of morals and metaphysics the way Cronenberg's last film, "A History of Violence," did. Still, it shows the Canadian filmmaker working at a whole new level of confidence in what must be the fourth or fifth phase of a long career. Rather like Nikolai himself, "Promises" is alluring but heavy with imminent threat.
This being a Cronenberg film (with a sharp script by Steve Knight), there's a scene of appalling violence early on. It's a palate cleanser of sorts and a reminder that civilization is a thin skin over our animal nature. Indeed, animal nature is everywhere in "Eastern Promises," from the periodic eruptions of bloody mayhem to the revealed fate of the dead girl, a teenager from Ukraine lured to London by promises of a new life (thus the title) that ended in slavery.
Cronenberg has always been a director whose screen violence actually hurts, and in this film he extends the pain to include man's inhumanity to women. The world of the Vory V Zakone is macho and sealed off, a hidden order of prison tattoos and sexual bravado. Kirill is probably gay under endless layers of denial, and Cassel nicely shows the character whipsawing between a desperate crush on his friend and a rich boy's insolence. The actor knows he's playing the movie's Fredo Corleone, but he gives Kirill some of the sweaty, dangerous energy of an early Warner Bros. gangster, too.
Mortensen's Nikolai, by contrast, could come out of a Jean-Pierre Melville movie of the 1960s - one of those French Zen crime sagas like "Le Samourai," where silence is sexy and lethal. Unreadable behind his wraparound shades, Nikolai slicks his hair back in a devil-horned quiff and just waits. It's a performance of almost unbearable tension, erotically and otherwise. As Anna slowly realizes the full depravity of the situation and her own peril, Nikolai has the chance to become her knight. The attraction is there, but it wars with duty and self-preservation.
The storm finally breaks in a fight sequence, set in a Russian steam bath, that's an instant movie classic. It pits the naked Nikolai against two knife-wielding Chechens who aren't about to play fair, and, staged for maximum audience reaction, the scene's outrageous, punishing, gory, exploitative, absurdist, and thrilling beyond all measure. A woman I was sitting near - a die-hard Viggo fan - kept turning from the screen with shrieks of dismay then turning back for a peek at the star's kibbles and bits.
As the film's bruised innocent, Watts is very good, but "Eastern Promises" isn't about her so much as it's about the lengths men will go to plunder or protect. (That also covers Anna's Uncle
It's hard to leave Nikolai, though, burning a hole in the screen. Mortensen has played a king of Middle-earth and, for Cronenberg, a man with two lives. This is the first time, though, his performance seemed so much bigger than the film surrounding it. That he manages the feat with so few wasted gestures puts him in line with the greats.