To join the Russian mafia, people must be able to strip down and show their resumes. In the underground world of Russian crime a person’s story and life is told through tattoos.
The idea of tattoos as a form of biography is one that is prevalent in David Cronenberg’s newest film. “Eastern Promises” is a movie that chronicles the life of a hospital nurse named Anna (Naomi Watts) who unknowingly crosses paths with the Russian mafia operating out of London.
When a hemorrhaging young girl named Tatiana, who is about to give birth, is brought into the hospital, Anna takes Tatiana’s diary, intrigued by the fact that it’s written in Russian. The baby is delivered, but Tatiana dies.
Anna keeps the diary and has her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) begin translating it to English from his native tongue. Searching through the diary, Anna finds a business card for a local Trans-Siberian restaurant and immediately seeks it out.
When Anna arrives at the restaurant, the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and two of his henchmen are there to greet her. She explains how she managed to obtain the diary to Semyon, whose curiosity and fear lead him to set up a time to meet and discuss its contents with Anna.
What Anna doesn’t know about Semyon, however, is that he is the head of a large Russian crime family and group named the Vory v Sedenko, or “thieves in law.”
While Anna is occupied searching for Tatiana’s remaining family, the movie also follows Semyon’s driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), who is slowly increasing his power within the Vory. Even though Nikolai is simply the driver, it becomes apparent very early on that he spends more time watching over Semyon’s son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is supposedly Nikolai’s surperior within the Vory.
This relationship is full of tension and power struggle as Semyon begins to realize that Nikolai is much better at executing tasks than his lush of a son.
Much of the film’s Vory storyline focuses on this triangle of shifting power between Nikolai, Kirill and his father, Semyon. Kirill has a constant need for approval from both Nikolai and Semyon, who no sooner wishes to be rid of Kirill’s foolish behavior. Often, Kirill creates more problems for the Vory than he solves and Nikolai is left to clean up his mess both literally and figuratively.
As the film begins to progress, however, Anna’s story and Nikolai’s story begin to overlap. Anna’s uncle has translated some of the text from Tatiana’s diary, which is littered with words like “rape” and “drugs” and “prostitution.” Suspiciously, Semyon sends Anna back at their first meeting,, requesting she bring the real diary in exchanged for the address of Tatiana’s relatives. Anna complies, but her curiosity doesn’t let the film end there.
The strongest point of “Eastern Promises” is in its acting. The three Russian men played by Viggo Mortenson as Nikolai, Vincent Cassel as Kirill and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon are nearly perfect in their roles. While Mueller-Stahl is easily the best actor in the movie, mixing a likeable grandfather quality with the ruthlessness of a mafia boss, Mortenson does equally as well as the strong and silent type. He does an excellent job of creating a mystery about his character that excites the audience whenever Nikolai is on the screen.
Another strong point of the film is the screenplay. It is rich in characterization and full of interesting dialogue. The characters say what they need to say and the scene moves on. This film doesn’t feel slow at all, usually, with a few scenes becoming the exception.
Perhaps the best part is a powerful fight scene that comes late in the film. It looked so natural and realistic; each aspect of the fight was a natural progression from what was happening at the moment. This film is violent when it needs to be, but never just for the sake of violence.
The film drags a bit in the beginning before Anna’s story is intertwined with Nikolai’s. The Vory v Sedenko is far more interesting than listening to Anna’s drunk Uncle Stepan rant and rave about how she shouldn’t be dating the man she is.
I found myself sometimes bored when no one from the Vory was on screen, though it made it that much more exciting when the film came back to those characters. Anna’s storyline is essential to the film as a whole, which is the only reason that I sat through it, but the Russian Vory is where the film has its most brilliant moments.
September is usually a slow month for the film industry; however, “Eastern Promises” is something worth watching. Its story is “Godfather”-esque, its acting superb, and as a whole it is not overly violent.
David Cronenberg made an excellent film, full of intrigue, mystery and insight into the Russian mafia. After watching “Eastern Promises,” you might be tempted to take a few shots of vodka, get some tattoos, and start your own rise of power through the Vory v Sedenko.