David Cronenberg continues to eschew his tentacles, orifices and “new flesh” of yore with “Eastern Promises,” an intense crime thriller that keeps the director in the same gangsterish realm of his recent hit “A History of Violence.” That film’s star, Viggo Mortensen, plays a major role in this new film, as a London-based Russian driver for the mob caught between a crime family and a half-Russian doctor, who gets drawn into a sinister world after delivering the baby of a woman mixed up with some bad characters. (Wait, isn’t that the plot of last week’s “Shoot ’Em Up”?)
Naomi Watts plays Dr. Anna Khitrova, a woman drawn by her own recent miscarriage to track down the family of a 14-year-old Russian girl who has died during childbirth. With only the girl’s diary as a clue, Anna tracks down a restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Muller-Stahl). While he at first charms her with his borscht and his old-world charm, it immediately becomes clear that the dead girl was brought to the U.K. as a sex slave, and that Semyon’s loose-cannon son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is quite probably the baby’s father.
While the bad guys are very interested in having the diary returned to them, Anna does her best to stay out of their violent world. But Mortensen’s character wants very much to get in, attempting to prove himself to be a better heir to Semyon than Kirill, who has problems with drugs, alcohol and a Larry Craig–sized denial about his sexual orientation.
The film is exceptionally put together, successfully creating both suspense and rich, interesting characters. The whole Russian underworld milieu, from seedy whorehouses to sumptuous restaurants, comes to vivid life, taking what might have seemed like gangster movie clichés in a movie about Italians and making them new and exciting.
Fully inhabiting this world are the three male leads — Mueller-Stahl brilliantly balances the twinkle of a sweet old man and the dead-eyed evil of an utter monster, and Cassel does coiled-up unpredictability as well as practically anyone on screen. But it’s Mortensen’s show here, from his intimidation/seduction of Watts (who’s fine, but isn’t given nearly as many showboating opportunities here as her male costars) to a sure-to-be-talked-about scene where he takes on two assassins in a public bath while completely naked.
“Eastern Promises” has a lot going for it, which makes it all the more disappointing when the story takes a fatal turn towards the end. Not to give any spoilers, but it’s the sort of audacious plot turn that some audiences will accept, while others won’t; I’m in the latter category, and this script flaw made me start noticing other implausibilities like rapidly healing tattoos and well-behaved, heroin-addicted newborns.
Whether or not the big plot twist takes you out of the movie, “Eastern Promises” is worth a look, if only because David Cronenberg’s films are so much more visionary and daring than 95 percent of what’s in the marketplace; his failures will always be more interesting than most filmmakers’ greatest successes.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints