- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

No one can take a genre film and turn it into art like David Cronenberg.

The Canadian auteur made his name in the 1970s and ‘80s with philosophical horror and sci-fi films such as “Videodrome” and “The Fly” before making cult classics including “Dead Ringers” and “Naked Lunch.” With his last film, 2005’s “A History of Violence,” he found some mainstream acclaim working off another writer’s script while still making something identifiably his own.

He has repeated the feat with another tale of alienation, “Eastern Promises,” a gangster flick that plays with every convention of the genre.

The film begins with a gory scene of gangland execution: A man sitting unaware in a barber’s chair has his throat slit. This is London, but it feels more like some seedy part of Moscow. Screenwriter Steve Knight explores an Eastern immigrant underworld similar to that in his “Dirty Pretty Things.” The Russian mafia lures young girls across the continent with promises of a better life, but they never see much of the West. They’re kept under lock and key except to paying customers.

Such is the milieu in which Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) finds herself embroiled. The midwife sees a 14-year-old die after giving birth. She filches the girl’s diary, hoping to find her family and place her newborn daughter in good hands. Seeking a translation, she visits a restaurant whose business card was stuck in the diary. It’s soon clear that the restaurant is a front and the proprietor, the fatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), is so eager to assist because the girl is one of his.

Anna keeps running into the mob boss’s driver, Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen). The moral and physical center of the film, Mr. Mortensen (“A History of Violence”) reunites with the director in a mesmerizing performance, right down to his always-perfect body language.

The driver is as detached from his fellow human beings as his Nabokovian namesake. He’s slick and brash, ingratiating himself with the team by putting out a cigarette with his tongue and acquiescing to a mobster’s desire to see him couple with a woman. But he also asks that girl her name afterward and shows some interest in her fate.

He has some humanity in him, which Anna, to her surprise, can sense. The pair make a connection, but don’t expect them to ride off into the sunset together. This is a David Cronenberg film.

That means, of course, plenty of graphic violence. How Mr. Cronenberg always manages to make it so original (in “Violence,” it was a staircase sex scene) is a marvel. A bathhouse fight in “Eastern Promises” is pure genius. Nikolai has been set up and, naked and unarmed, faces two fully-clothed Chechens. The nimble Mr. Mortensen, whom it’s impossible not to watch despite the grisly violence, looks barely half of his 48 years. Sound-effects editor Rob Bertola deserves credit for helping make the violence intensely real, much more than in most gangster films.

Vincent Cassel is perfectly vicious as Semyon’s son, disappointing his father at every turn, not least because he seems more interested in Nikolai than the prostitutes. But then, Nikolai turns out to be a much bigger mystery than they are. Don’t be disappointed if, unlike in most thrillers, you never get the key to that mystery.

*** 1/2

TITLE: “Eastern Promises”

RATING: R (Strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Steve Knight

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

WEB SITE: www.focusfeatures.com/easternpromises

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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