Director David Cronenberg’s masterpiece, A History of Violence catapulted him to the upper-echelon of today’s directors. Until AHOV, he’d previously worked on offbeat films that got mixed reviews, like Crash (1996), eXistenZ, and Spider, with the occasional brush with “commercial” films like The Fly.
His follow-up to AHOV is Eastern Promises, which features the same actor from AHOV (Viggo Mortensen) in another mysteriously dark role that has earned the actor a well-deserved Oscar Nomination for Best Actor although he will almost certainly lose to frontrunner Daniel Day-Lewis of There Will Be Blood.
In Eastern Promises, Mortensen plays Nikolai, a bodyguard who works for a ruthless Russian mob family. His loyalty is tested when he becomes involved with Anna (Naomi Watts), a mid-wife, who delivers a dead-prostitute’s baby. Ann also finds the dead girl’s diary that incriminates the mob family’s patriarch, thus putting Anna and her family’s lives in danger. Things also get dicey for Nikolai as he rises in the family’s ranks, making the gang leader’s out of control son dangerously jealous.
Sadly, Cronenberg has dialed up his restraint. One of the many things that made A History of Violence so enthralling was the surprising eruptions of violence in normal every day life. However, in Eastern Promises, Cronenberg takes a naturally violent world and manages to make it tame by comparison. Sure, there are some nasty slashed throats and a tense bathhouse tussle that has Mortensen fighting bad guys in the buff, but overall, the tension that was always on full-blast in AHOV is sorely lacking here.
And after the climactic bathhouse scene, Eastern Promises slows to a crawl and many plots are left without closure. Also, one key twist in the plot feels weak, making a certain character’s motivation less mysterious, rendering a great discussion point moot.
In the end, when the credits roll, one can’t help feel a little let down by Eastern Promises, a movie with so much promise. Cronenberg, Mortensen, Watts, the Russian mob, all the factors for a high-impact movie full of tension and suspense are here. However, not enough of it makes it to the screen.
Filmed in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Eastern Promises fills the entire screen of your widescreen TV, so no black bars! And that is where the good news ends. The picture is slightly bleached, normal for Cronenberg films, giving it a grimy feel, which takes away from the picture’s quality. However, there are no noticeable flaws to be found.
Eastern Promises is a dialogue-driven film, so there isn’t much to write home about when it comes to sound, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 track handles dialog just fine. The only listening problems you’ll have is with the thick Russian accents.
Disappointingly, the only special features found on the DVD include two basic documentaries. The first is Secrets and Stories, which is your standard behind-the-scenes fare, and Marked for Life, which delves into the importance of tattoos in the Russian mafia world.
A director’s and/or writer’s commentary, and a look into the Russian mafia would have been great additions to this disc’s special features section, and would have perhaps enhanced the viewer appreciation of the film.
Overall, Eastern Promises is a disappointing experience – from the initial viewing to the special features on the disc. The A/V specs are all fine, but video and audiophiles alike will be disappointed in the disc’s average appearance. Unless there is a Special Edition release in the works, there is no excuse to release Eastern Promises this way. There are too many wasted jumping-off points to dive into the film’s subject matter, thus leading to a disc that is barely rentable, let alone worth owning.