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Fighting evil with evil

In David Cronenberg's slick London-set thriller, the ultraviolent Russian mafia entangles innocents in a dark and complicated web.

September 14, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

David Cronenberg has always had something to say about the grotesque transformations that result when science and technology transgress the flesh, and the ensuing social breakdown. But there was a time when he spoke about it in the language of experiments, infections, mutations, identity-altering drugs, malignant broadcast signals, genetic accidents.

Lately, he's moved away from the altered body to focus on larger organisms. Now, instead of frail and pliant human bodies, it's innocent small towns and Western cities populated by ordinary, orderly people that play host to virulent foreign parasites, and the failed experiments are social.

The director's career has in some ways been a reprise of the greatest fears of the 1950s, so it makes sense that technophobia and fear of the unrecognizable self have given way to xenophobia and fear of the unrecognizable society. Look out. The Russians are coming.

Expertly realized and gunmetal slick, "Eastern Promises" whirs along with perfect efficiency, but doesn't stir much in the way of visceral horror despite its penchant for treating the human body like a chicken carcass on a block. (Squeamishness, yes.) The movie is in many ways a B-movie companion piece to "A History of Violence." Here, again, the mutating virus walks, talks and waves a gun around, infecting the body politic. And, again, the good guy is the guy who can be very bad when he needs to be.

Set in the shadowy underbelly of the new criminal London, "Eastern Promises" right away throws various lambs -- a newborn baby, various teenage sex slaves, a Western European liberal with pure intentions -- to the Russian wolves. The movie begins with two ritual bloodlettings. First thing, a Russian is killed at a barber shop, his throat sawed open by an idiot kid with a dull knife. Then a young Russian girl hemorrhages to death on a pharmacy floor shortly before giving birth to a baby.

The baby is delivered by a half-Russian, half-English midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), who becomes obsessed with locating the infant's family. The dead girl has left a diary, which leads Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, which leads her to the ultraviolent underworld of the Vory V Zakone, or Russian mafia, traffickers in girls, drugs and (because every crime ring needs a good front) surprisingly delicious borscht.

It's here that Anna meets Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen, an actor who requires no tele-transport pod to appear more engineered than born. Nikolai works as a chauffeur and "undertaker" for a ruthless Russian crime boss named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a sort of Sonny-slash-Fredo of the Urals.

When Kirill gets into trouble with a rival gang, Nikolai offers his assistance and Semyon replies with an invitation to join the brotherhood. The deeper Nikolai sinks into the world of the Vory, the more Anna discovers about the baby's past, the more Nikolai helps her in his unique menacing way. Is Nikolai essentially good? Is he evil? Is a good man required to be evil if it will protect the innocent from yet more evil? Does the long-term exposure to evil that results in fighting evil with evil result in some kind of moral mutation? Honestly, I couldn't say. Cronenberg floats the possibilities but he doesn't dig in with his old relish.

The much-discussed Turkish bath death-match scene, in which Nikolai, wearing a washcloth, is brutally attacked by a pair of fully clothed Chechens, is quite revealing. But as for its conveying the realistic "body-ness" the director was after, well, it's no nude "Borat" wrestling scene. The terrifying vulnerability and malleability of the flesh doesn't pack the same punch when the body in question is firmer than a boutique hotel mattress.

For all its naked fighting, as well as its finger-pruning, eye-impaling, throat-slitting and childbirth hemorrhaging, the movie is much less corporeal than the Cronenberg films of olden days and considerably more hidebound. Whereas his films once expressed a fierce protection of the self against external, anti-humanist forces, they now seem to insist, compulsively, on the need for order and everyone in his or her place. Even the brave Anna, after falling in love with her cruel-to-be-kind Russian, gives up her beloved dad's motorcycle and her jeans and leather jacket for a floral-print dress and the pleasures of a backyard clothes-line. Who, exactly, is afraid of what?

"Eastern Promises." MPAA rating: R for strong, brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. In general release.

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