The biggest letdown of 2007 is now available on DVD. Though some would offer “Inland Empire” as definitive proof that David Lynch has finally, completely lost his marbles, I haven’t seen the film so I’m going to go with that other iconoclastic David, Mr. Cronenberg and his “Eastern Promises,” the tale of a Russian driver for a family that’s part of the Vory V Zakone organized crime brotherhood in London, and the midwife who discovers the horrific diary of the Ukranian teenager who died while delivering the baby she saved. Sound heavy? Don’t worry – it’s not. Even Cronenberg’s “The History of Violence,” based on a graphic novel so its often cartoon images could be forgiven, dug deeper.
Yes, this is the film that contains the infamous “sauna scene,” in which Viggo Mortensen’s chauffeur character Nikolai comes within an inch of his life fighting off bloodthirsty thugs while totally losing his waist-wrapped towel. It’s the high point of the movie and not just because nearly 50-year-old Viggo (50!) looks great in the buff. Cronenberg is a master at combining gory special effects with ballet-like choreography, as he proved in the far superior “The History of Violence.” The problem with “Eastern Promises” is that it promises more than it actually delivers. Dealing with themes of ruthless ambition, Eastern-European culture after the fall of Communism, the fine (nonexistent?) line separating “good” from “bad” – even sex slavery! – Cronenberg couldn’t quite get all the pieces to fit into place except in only the broadest, black-and-white terms. And it doesn’t help that the predictable, heavy-handed, melodramatic screenplay by Steven Knight (who better tread similar, human trafficking territory in “Dirty Pretty Things”) sacrifices nuance for nonstop action.
Perhaps the only saving grace is the film’s impeccable acting, especially by Mortensen, Armin Mueller-Stahl as the grave, Godfather-like Semyon and Vincent Cassel as Kiril, his scarily unhinged son. Unfortunately, that tepid script leaves them little to work with. Even the legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski as Stepan, the “good” guy uncle of Naomi Watts’ midwife Anna, is reduced to tossing off racist bigotry between shots of vodka – where’s the subtlety beneath the caricature? Cronenberg’s formally composed images flow smoothly and rigorously but lack passion. Mortensen’s sauna scene is the only one to breathe much needed life into an otherwise stillborn film, a standard crime procedural masquerading as moral drama. Even the “surprise twist” at the end is a fly swat when it should have been a knockout punch. The real surprise is that “Eastern Promises” is such a lightweight film for a normally heavy hitter. Setting himself up for a homerun, Cronenberg never followed through on his swing.