David Cronenberg's follow-up to A History of Violence offers empty Promises

Eastern Promises

on September 14, 2007 by Kevin Courrier
Whether bringing a horror film ( The Fly ), murder mystery ( Spider ), science fiction ( The Dead Zone ) or experimental fiction ( Naked Lunch ) to the screen, director David Cronenberg generally sets out to transcend genre in order to get at transgressive areas of the human experience. In Eastern Promises , his follow-up to the successful, if overrated, A History of Violence , Cronenberg capitulates to genre cliches with disappointing results.

Working from an insipid script by Steve Knight ( Dirty Pretty Things ), Cronenberg delves into the criminal underworld of the Russian mafia in London. When Anna (Naomi Watts), a hospital midwife with Russian roots, recovers a diary from an unnamed Russian woman who dies giving birth on the operating table, she seeks out the girl's identity. The clues lead her to blandly charming Russian restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who, unknown to her, has strong ties to a mafia family. When Semyon discovers that the deceased's journal incriminates his violently unpredictable son (Vincent Cassel), he dispatches his progeny and laconic driver (Viggo Mortensen) to recover the memoir and tie up the loose ends.

Maybe a hotwire director with some sharp commercial instincts might have vaulted us past the plot holes in Eastern Promises —like why the police don't initially seize the diary as part of their investigation into the immigrant girl's death—but Cronenberg's cerebral temperament is all wrong for this kind of picture. Rather than provide suspense for this shallow melodrama, he delves doggedly into the story. With the exception of a sharply choreographed fight scene set in a bathhouse that is edited with startling precision, the picture simmers in torpor.

Some of the actors do rise above the din. Watts gives a core of emotional weight to a thinly written role, while Mortensen provides a stylized deadpan performance that contributes some curdled humour. Eastern Promises , though, offers mostly empty promises.

For complete coverage of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, search boxoffice.com using keyword "TIFF 2007." Distributor: Focus
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl
Directory: David Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Steve Knight
Producers: Paul Webster and Robert Lantos
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity
Running time: 96 min.
Release date: September 14, 2007 ltd., September 21 exp.
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