We're in London and the streets look like they are owned and operated by Beelzebub himself. The ghosts of the KGB death squads loom in the distance, but the Russian crime syndicate's stranglehold over the hoods and alleys is as strong as ever. Out of one of these decrepit alleyways crawls a 14-year-old girl who walks into a pharmacy only moments before hemorrhaging from the baby girl inside her. Her death is announced at the same time as her daughter's birth. Welcome to the decaying London of David Cronenberg
's Eastern Promises.
A master at the ancient art of phantom punching, Cronenberg's examination of the Russian mafia's sex trade, currently flourishing in London, doesn't hit you till you're a good quarter mile out of the theater, as you're still contemplating Viggo Mortensen
's slicked-back hairdo. Like a cccwolf right before the hunt, Mortensen snarls and calmly stalks as Nikolai, the driver for a sect of the elusive crime syndicate Vory V Zakone, a specter that arose from the ashes of Stalin's work camps. Nikolai works for Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl
) and Semyon's volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassel
), taking care of their transportation and their criminal refuse. When Nikolai snaps off the fingers of a corpse, he asks Kirill and his business associate Azim (Mina E. Mina) to leave... but the audience is allowed to stay. Article continues below
When a midwife named Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts
) starts sniffing around for the family of the mother and daughter who ended up on her table, Nikolai's steely eyes thin and begin to calculate. What is first believed to be Kirill's lost baby actually belongs to the stately Semyon, who brutally raped and locked away the Russian teenager. Semyon's distinguished attitude gives him a paterfamilial warmth, serving Anna some heated borscht and singing Russian tunes to a woman on her 100th birthday. That we don't see Semyon's crystallized blood makes him all the more dangerous, and it benefits even more from Mueller-Stahl's suave performance and Cassel's wounded cub.
Cronenberg's film regulates all its characters to the ghosts that swirl around them. The gloomy ghouls of Stalin and the KGB evoke the steel eyes of Semyon while Anna's conscience is haunted by the dead girl and the horrors of Eastern Europe, an upbringing she was spared from when her family emigrated to London. Even Nikolai warbles at the thoughts of his own quixotic past and his disheveled moral compass that is beholden to both Semyon and the London police. Not to worry though: Cronenberg still composes blistering acts of violence, as he does here in a stunning three-man battle in a bathhouse with a stark-naked Mortensen. Thanks to the director's ever-evolving style and Steve Knight's pungent script, Mortensen continues to elevate his craft from the broad sword of Aragorn to a whole new level of craft that became apparent in Cronenberg's last film, the disarmingly brilliant A History of Violence. Cronenberg, a world-class provocateur, reminds us that the London streets still aren't safe and they probably never were.