It's only September but already we've had a full year's worth of bad films, from the adolescent fantasies of "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," to the bloated excesses of "Spiderman 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean 3." But now we have what I hope will be just the first of the truly good films. It's "Eastern Promises," written by Steve Knight, who gave us that brilliant film "Dirty Pretty Things" a few years ago, and directed by David Cronenberg, who's come a long, long way from his roots as Canada's gory schlock-meister.
"Eastern Promises" is a brilliant piece of invention. A young midwife in a London hospital, Naomi Watts, sees a fourteen-year-old girl brought in, hemorraging, who dies in childbirth, but is delivered of a healthy baby. She leaves behind a diary in Russian, and Watts, a second-generation Russian, brings it to her uncle to translate. It turns out the girl has been entrapped by the Russian mafia, lured to London to be a prostitute, though thinking she was going to be a singer. There's a card in the diary for a Russian restaurant, whose owner, Armin Mueller-Stahl, is also the boss of the mafia. He has a son, Kirill, played by Vincent Cassel, and a chauffeur who doubles as a hitman, Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen.
Mortensen is amazing; with his chiseled features and hooded eyes, and a perfect Russian accent, he gives a performance that is both intelligent and frightening at the same time. His boss, Mueller-Stahl, moves smoothly from decorating cakes at his restaurant for a dowager's birthday party to ordering the death of someone who might betray him. There is violence from the beginning of the film to the end, including what will surely become a favorite of filmmakers everywhere, a fight in a Russian bathhouse that is staged brilliantly; you cannot take a breath as you watch it.
As Nikolai rises in stature in the mafia, with the tattoos on his body that tell the story of his life in Russian prisons, Kirill, his nominal boss, becomes unreliable and Mueller-Stahl relies more and more on Nikolai. Watching the two actors at work in the film is one of the great pleasures of a critic's life. Mueller-Stahl, with his combination of an avuncular manner and a strange bow-like mouth - I don't mean a little girl's mouth but the bow of a bow and arrow - we cannot take our eyes off of him. And Mortensen, with his knowing smile and killer eyes, was made for this role.
Directed by Cronenberg with a sense of the dismal underbelly of this civilized city of London, there are no unnecessary shots, no lingering over gorgeous compositions; just a documentary sense that all we need to know is right in front of us. He gives his actors room to build their characters, and they've served him well; this is a scary movie.
I was going to put "Eastern Promises" in the same category as "The Godfather," up until the ending, which seems to me to be a copout - unnecessary and contrived - but still, we have all but five minutes of a great film. That should be enough for anyone.