Another gory mafia story from David Cronenberg, this time set not in America's heartland but in the Russian immigrant community of London. Eastern Promises stars Viggo Mortensen as a limo driver and hired muscle for the mob whose life gets very complicated when a young woman is raped and murdered, but not before she leaves behind some crucial evidence that could tie the crime to the mob -- her newborn baby. She also leaves behind a diary, which falls into the hands of a London midwife, played by Naomi Watts. Whereas A History of Violence had a strong forward momentum and a relatively streamlined story, Eastern Promises is sprawling, with more characters to juggle, crosses and double-crosses to keep straight and the kind of attention to detail -- there's a whole Russian mafia 'making' ceremony, for example -- that some will find interesting and others will find tedious. It's a dense, tightly-wound and plotty picture that stops here and there for a bit of blood-curdling violence that will have undoubtedly some audience members on the verge of throwing up.

The film's cast does a uniformly fine job, with Viggo Mortensen never letting his accent slip. Even though we know intellectually that he's putting it on, we can still persuade ourselves to buy him as a Russian import from a tougher, more heartless culture where being the least-talkative person in the room is always some kind of sign of good sense. I especially liked his habit of plunking down his cigarettes wherever he finishes them, which says more about his underlying character than a lot of the dialogue he's given. Among the rest of the cast, Vincent Cassel is a standout as Kirill, the boss's son who thinks he can slap around anyone he wants with impunity and expects to inherit his father's empire. Cassel has been turning in good performances for years and doesn't get nearly as much credit as he deserves, but hopefully more roles in high-profile films like this one will fix that. As for Naomi Watts, she has a more or less thankless role as the straight woman reacting to events around her and trying to protect the baby.


Of course, no film about Russians would be complete without Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the big boss and is the cause of all of the trouble in the first place. Although he's getting on in years, Mueller-Stahl is still a terrifically capable character actor and he gives the film its ethnic credibility, which is a task that's somewhat beyond the reach of the more recognizable actors playing Russians. Viggo is good, but we never really forget that he's Viggo during the picture -- his persona is just a little bit too recognizable to pull that off. Cronenberg clearly wants us to be immersed in that world, however, so he (seemingly) populates the film with real Russians and takes us on a number of tours through the film's immigrant enclaves, cut off from the outside influences of the city at large. That attention to detail helps to sell the picture, but it also slows it down and keeps it from achieving the quicksilver pacing that we might expect. This is a film with a lot of big emotions, but not a lot of big moments.

The biggest moment, and the one everyone will be talking about, is the Naked Ninja Viggo scene, as I'll call it. Nikolai is enjoying a relaxing steam at one point in the film when hitmen turn up to do him in, and he commits to the deadly fight before having a chance to put on a towel. I have to admit, the audience ate this scene up at my screening, and all credit to Cronenberg for finding a new way to stage a fight scene. However, the film would have benefited from keeping that scene's unpredictable, electric energy throughout instead of making it the exception to the rule. The subject matter of this film -- rape, murder, revenge, mob ties, tested loyalty -- is naturally weighty stuff and difficult to digest, and steering away from that stylistically would have made the film more palatable and a more enjoyable ride. As it stands, Eastern Promises is entertaining and dramatically satisfying to an extent, but it won't bring in nearly as much box-office borscht as Cronenberg's superior previous film.