David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is as ruthless and nasty of a thriller as you’re likely to find. The director’s uniquely cold, semi-detached style perfectly fit with the pitch-black script from writer Steven Knight, who also penned the underrated thriller Dirty Pretty Things and the confined-to-a-car knock-out Locke. Without giving anything away, Eastern Promises has more than a few extremely smart, completely unpredictable surprises and twists, all of which are casually revealed like it’s no big deal. That’s one of the many sly pleasures that this film affords; Cronenberg and Knight pay their respects to the genre they’re working in, but they do enough to subvert our expectations, which results in a film that has the power to immediately engross the viewer in the dangerous underworld of violent Russian gangsters, but also allowing for thoughtful moments of introspective character development which allows the film to become so much more than a series of violent set-pieces.
But about those set-pieces, of which there are a few – this movie takes zero prisoners when it comes to the visceral impact of murder, and the film’s ultimate bit of action, a five minute fight-to-the death with Viggo Mortensen taking on two thugs in a steam bath, completely nude, is easily one of the most brutally punishing movie fight I have ever seen. I’ve see a lot of ass-kicking, and the last bout in The Raid 2 certainly went to hell and back, but the choreography in that film turned it into a violent dance, something John Woo would wet himself over. The steam bath fight in Eastern Promises is raw, sloppy, scary, and never slick, which is why I love it so much.
We’ve seen countless scenes in movies and television shows were someone pulls off the perfect murder, all tidy, no blood, no loose ends. The steam bath fight is the opposite of that – things don’t go as planned for the various characters, split second decisions are made, and blood gushes like a babbling brook. Eschewing guns in favor of small knives, Cronenberg’s masterful direction is the definition of riveting, and Mortensen, working completely nude throughout the entire fight, delivers a tour de force of physical acting, something you’ll never forget. The brutal yet realistic violence all throughout this film will turn off some, but because each incident so neatly serves the air-tight script, nothing ever feels cheap or exploitive – just the way it would go down if you were a part of an extremely volatile group of murderers and psychopaths.
The “Russian-ness” of this film is a character unto itself, with the fantastic production design giving every scene a realistic feel, and the observant cinematography never turning a blind eye. Every once in a while a thriller like this one comes along and reminds you what can be done with familiar material, and while satisfying in the conventional sense, Cronenberg is still able to play with all of his customary themes, with characters who serve more than one purpose on the outside as well as the inside. Vincent Cassell provides juicy, sweaty, paranoid support, and Naomi Watts, as usual, does commanding work, bringing welcome sass and a much needed vulnerability to her small yet important role within the tricky narrative. Eastern Promises and A History of Violence make for a great one-two punch of rarefied crime cinema.