Russian gangsters in London — what they lack in firepower they match in sheer brutality. Cronenberg is a great writer, and so even when he isn’t driving the story in that capacity, he knows how to pick ‘em: themes of transformation and identity are here, but adapted to a new and dangerous arena.
Eastern Promises is a very tightly plotted film, and yet it deals in shifting allegiances and worlds inside worlds — what can be confusing makes for a surprisingly simple plot, indicating other things going on. Character, first, but theme primarily. It’s a penetrating look at the culture of violent men, that despite being quantitatively light on violence, is consistently discomforting. Far from a romantic portrayal, a la Scorsese, and not a mythological one per Coppolla — this is about cutting fingers off of corpses and being pressured into sex with distant prostitutes.
Viggo Mortensen, so impressive in his turn as Tom Stall, returns with an Oscar-winning performance in any other year (Daniel Day Lewis was also competing in 2008, with There Will Be Blood). He absolutely disappears into the role of this Russian mobster, the stoic and terrifying driver whose tattoos tell as much story as his stone face.
We also see Vincent Cassel playing a type we’re familiar with, his manic pixie, which is equally scary but for remotely different reasons. Viggo is clearly the son that the boss wishes he had, and Cassel’s character understands this implicitly. But things don’t go down that way, and climax in what Roger Ebert considered to the French Connection’s car chase of fistfights. It is quite spectacular, and something any filmmaker should study before photographing non-martial arts combat.
As a fan of, let’s say, middle-era Cronenberg, of The Fly, Dead Ringers, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch — often what these films represented rather than what they were — Eastern Promises is like a last hurrah for the gruesomely gory, and that clinical splatter is applied appropriately to the unknowing streets of London.