Wednesday, September 26, 2007

REVIEW: Eastern Promises

Sometimes, honestly, it can get a bit bothersome to be "the movie guy" in your place of business, or circle of friends, or family gathering. Usually, these times involve those instances when a question about a movie becomes so automatic and ubiquitous that you already know it's about to be asked just based on who's asking and what the movie is.

So, in the spirit of that, to my female readers: YES, you can his penis. Will that be all? It will? Groovy. Moving on...

"Eastern Promises" is probably the leanest movie of actual substance to come along in some time. It's so efficient and to-the-point, but (thanks largely to it's actors) so fundamentally alive that the best descriptive I can find for it would be biomechanical, which given that the director is David Cronenberg seems entirely appropriate. There's not an ounce of fat on this - every scene moves the story ahead, every line reveals something of vital importance about the story or the people in it, every fact we hear is important, every character has a specific and important role to play, everything means something. There's no stopping to smell the roses, no larger or broader themes to explore, no loose threads to leave for interpretation. Even a fairly "wowzer" third-act twist that anywhere else would be the key to blowing open a whole other "grander" level to the proceedings is here just a part of the machinery: It makes sense, fits perfectly with what we've already seen, and propels the story ahead to the next point.

Which, all told, makes it kind of a pain in the neck to review. I mean, c'mon David... think of us critics. We NEED extraneous digressions, vauge open-to-interpretation loose ends and subtle, small-detail hints to give us something to write all flowery and academic about. Why, you go and make something so bullshit-free and efficient all we can really do is tell the people what it's about and whether or not we think it's any good. Hmph! You're just a mean ol' Canadian spoilsport, is what you are :)

The story involves transplanted Russian immigrants and their families in London. Hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) has placed in her care the newborn baby of dead, drugged-addicted Russian girl who's diary reveals (after Anna has it translated, as she doesn't speak Russian herself) that she was involved in the human-smuggling operations of the Vor v Zakone; a dangerous branch of the Russian mafia. This places the child, Anna and her family in danger - especially since, while seeking translators, Anna has unknowingly already gotten dangerously close to the local Vor leadership: Deceptively-gentle restauranture Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his psychotic son Kirill (Vincent Cassell.) She's also caught the attention of the enigmatic Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) Kirill's chauffer/bodyguard - and he's caught her's.

This all unspools with, as mentioned previously, a certain mechanical innevitability. Save for one significant reveal, there's never any question as to what's going on, what the stakes are and what eventually has to happen - it's all a matter of when and how. Credit Cronenberg for understanding how to wring all that can be wrung in terms of drama and suspense from material that isn't about to offer up "extras" on anything - there's no room for loligagging, but he knows just when to end a scene and when to draw one out to the maximum. The result: Not a single scene of dialogue or exposition goes on a fraction longer than it needs to, while other sequences like two decidedly un-slick throat-slitting murders (violent sawing instead of kung-fu-quick slice n' go) and a brutal knife/fist/wrestling fight between Nikolai and two attackers in a bathhouse become hugely-memorable setpieces. The bathhouse fight, in particular, is one of the most visceral and exciting brawls to hit screens all year, a (literal) knockout scene that makes the overrated "realism" of the "Bourne" series' action scenes look like so much shakycam'd flailing.

Credit also the actors, who may be in a no-frills crime picture but committ to their roles as though they're in a nothing-but-breathing-room character peice. These are fully-developed, richly-characterized beings who carry the full implication of lives and experiences outside the frame - even if the film-proper isn't at all interested in exploring them. Take notice, folks: It's work like this, not talking-head fests, where acting from the inside out really pays off.

Um... yeah. Like I said, not much else to be said beyond that. Russian Mob movie. Well made. Well acted. Go see it.



joe said...

"So, in the spirit of that, to my female readers: YES, you can his penis. Will that be all? It will? Groovy. Moving on..."
What's this about???

Bob said...

Yeah... writing the review, I kinda took it as a given that this factoid (or question of it's truthfulness) had taken on the same level of "meme"-itude elsewhere as it had in my social-circle's worth of female friends who frequent semi-arthouse movies; but apparently I'm a bit ahead of things this time.

In any case, short version: Mortensen goes (eventually) nude in the big bathouse fight scene (you get the basic idea in the trailer) and it's been the ONLY thing every woman friend who's asked me if I've seen the movie has wanted to know since it came out.

joe said...

Oh, so Aragorn goes Al Fresca. Okay, thanks for the clarification Bob.

Anonymous said...

"vor v zakone" means the head ("don") of a mafia structure, not a mafia branch.