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Viggo Mortensen plays Russian gangster Nikolai Luzhin, exposing the Russian criminal underworld of London. After the discovery of a diary that could have massive repercussions for the gang, Luzhin must work both for and against the moral laws of society.
The first time director David Cronenberg shot a movie entirely outside of Canada.
Anna Khitrova ( Naomi Watts), discovers a Russian-language diary on the body of a 14-year-old girl, named Tatiana ( Tatiana Maslany), who dies during childbirth. Among Tatiana's belongings is a card for the Trans-Siberian restaurant, owned by Semyon ( Armin Mueller-Stahl), a local boss in the Russian Mafia or 'Vory v Zakone' ("thieves in law"). Anna, being of British and Russian decent, tries to decipher the dairy but has trouble in doing so. Frustrated, Anna asks her Ukrainian Uncle Stepan ( Jerzy Skolimowski), to help her with the translation of the diary. Anna begins to track down the girl's family in order to find a home for the deceased mother's baby girl.
Anna's mother Helen ( Sinead Cusack) encourages Anna and tries to help, but Uncle Stepan warns her that it could turn out to be dangerous. Anna visits the resturant and meets Seymon. With the assistance of Semyon and her uncle, Anna discovers from the dairy that Semyon and his reckless son, Kirill ( Vincent Cassel), had abused, drugged, raped and forced Tatiana into prostitution.
and "cleaner", desposing of bodies by dropping then into the Thames River. Nikolai's begins to rise in the ranks of the mafia. Semyon backs Nikolai's proposal for full membership, since Nikolai has been protecting Semyon's son after Kirill overlooks their protocol. Kirill has marked the leader of a Chechen group for elimination, with the assassination having failed. The Chechen gang are on their
way to London with the intention of killing Kirill. Semyon is impressed with Nikolai's extensive knowledge of the criminal underworld and patience with Seymon's son. Once Nikolai becomes a full fledged member of the vory, Seymon devises a plan, so that Nikolai would temperarily take the place of Kirill. At a bathouse in London, the Chechens attack Nikolai. At the time, the Chechens were unaware of Nikolai's identity, believing that he was Kirill. Nikolai kills them both, but has severe wounds and winds up in the hospital.
Nikolai is actually an FSB agent working under license by the British Government. Nikolai had been working undercover for quite some time and made his way into Seymon's family business. Nikolai read Tatiana's diary before Semyon had it burned and made his own plan to have Semyon
arrested for statutory rape. After being taken into custody, Semyon orders Kirill to kidnap Tatiana's baby and kill her. Kirill sits by the Thames River, contemplating throwing the baby into the river, but struggles to bring himself to kill the child. Between Nikolai and Anna, they manage to convince him to return the child, rather than perform any violent action.
Nikolai tells Kirill that with his father in prison and out of the way, they are now the bosses of the family. Nikolai takes Semyon's place as boss of the family, while Anna gains custody of Tatiana's baby, and names her Christine.
Tattoos & Violence
Viggo Mortensen studied Russian gangsters and their tattoos, and also reviewed a documentary on them entitled, The Mark of Cain (2000). The tattoos that he wore were, according to the New York Daily News, so realistic, that diners in a Russian restaurant in London fell silent out of fear until Mortensen revealed his identity and admitted the tattoos were for a film. From that day on he washed off his tattoos whenever he went off the set. Mortensen said of the significance of the tattoos:
"I talked to...(authentic gangsters)...about what they meant and where they were on the body, what that said about where they'd been, what their specialties were, what their ethnic and geographical affiliations were. Basically their history, their calling card, is their body."
The trademark violence in much of Cronenberg's work does not stray from Eastern Promises, which features a graphic and violent fight scene in a steam bath where the combatants wield linoleum knives. When asked in an interview about the difference between "gun violence" and "knife violence," Cronenberg replied,
"We have no guns in this movie. There were no guns in the script. The choice of those curved knives we use in the steam bath was mine. They’re not some kind of exotic Turkish knives, they’re linoleum knives. I felt that these guys could walk around in the streets with these knives, and if they were ever caught, they could say 'we’re linoleum cutters'."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and wrote "Eastern Promises is no ordinary crime thriller, just as Cronenberg is no ordinary director", and said "Cronenberg has moved film by film into the top rank of directors, and here he wisely reunites with Mortensen" who "digs so deeply into the role you may not recognize him at first." Ebert said the film has a fight scene that "sets the same kind of standard that The French Connection set for chases. Years from now, it will be referred to as a benchmark."
J. Hoberman of The Village Voice said "I've said it before and hope to again: David Cronenberg is the most provocative, original, and consistently excellent North American director of his generation." Hoberman said the film is "directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power" and continues the trend of "murderous family dramas" seen in Spider and A History of Violence. Hoberman called the film "graphic but never gratuitous in its violence", "garish yet restrained", "a masterful mood piece", "deceptively generic" and said the film "suggests a naturalized version of the recent Russian horror flick Night Watch." When describing the cast, Hoberman said "Mueller-Stahl may be perfunctory...but Vincent Cassel literally flings himself into [his role]" and "Mortensen is even more electrifying as Nikolai than in A History of Violence".
Chris Vognar of The Dallas Morning News gave the film a "B+" and said "The film's genius performance belongs to the venerable Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the family head with a twinkling eye and an air of avuncular, Old World charm." Vognar wrote "Where some may see melodrama, Mr. Cronenberg locates timeless, elemental struggles between good and evil, right and wrong. But he makes sure to place a mysterious gray area front and center, personified here by Mr. Mortensen's Nikolai", writing "Nikolai Luzhin is...like Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man...only more dangerous" and "scarily enigmatic." Vognar wrote that Eastern Promises shares themes of "ambiguous identity and rage-soaked duality" with A History of Violence and said both films "have a lock-step precision and both take a sly kind of joy in subverting genre expectations." Vognar said Eastern Promises "is a little too mechanical for its own good...but the mechanics also produce an admirable crispness and sense of purpose, a sense that the man behind the camera knows exactly what he's doing at all times."