Saturday, September 22, 2007

Eastern Promises, 2007

From the opening moments of Eastern Promises (2007) there is no doubt you will be seeing a harsh, brutal movie. The movie opens with Azim (Mina E. Mina) giving a shave to a Russian mafia member. His son (grandson?) comes in, pulls down the shades, and just a couple minutes later takes the shaving blade and slits the throat of the customer. The bloody gurgling as his life passes disabuses the viewer of any notions this will be a soft movie.

Nor does it suddenly shift to sweetness and light. From there we shift to a pharmacy where a young lady, Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) asks for help. Suddenly blood gushes forth as she faints, her body hemorrhaging. She dies giving birth to her baby.

Thus we are drawn into a couple of interweaving plots. The baby plot follows Anna (Naomi Watts) as she tries to find the babies' family to keep the baby out of the London welfare system. To do this she needs to get Tatiana's diary translated from Russian. Her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) refuses to do it upon discovering it is full of stories of prostitution and drugs.

When Anna finds a card inside for a Russian restaurant, she goes there to get the diary translated. Of course, the restaurant belongs to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the gourmet Russian cook who is also the head of the feared Russian crime family called Vory V Zakone. Semyon tries to get the diary from her so she will not discover the contents, framing it as his attempt at charity.

Later, Stepan is convinced to translate the diary and discovers that Semyon is the father of the baby. As a result, Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson) is ordered to kill him.

Instead he convinces Stepan to disappear. It is one of numerous clues as to his role long before the ultimate reveal.

Ultimately, the reveal is that Stepan is a Russian undercover agent. He is working against the Vory family. The rape gives him his opportunity to take down Semyon and replace him as head of the family. As the movie closes, he sits alone in the restaurant as the new king of the family.

The cinematography is very effective, presenting a dark, dreary atmosphere in keeping with a movie in which brutality, double-crosses and fear are the norm. The dark colors, raw footage, and consistent themes are quite effective.

The editing was surprisingly rough with numerous jarring jump cuts and a few times when visible flaws in the print hover on the screen for a few distracting moments.

It is the writing that was both a strength and weakness of the movie. From early on there are clues that Nikolai is more than just "the driver" as he refers to himself, and the clues are there he may be some sort of agent. At the same time it is left open that when he receives the "stars above the heart" whether he is indeed an agent...or simply a less brutal crime boss taking over. His complex character is a strength of the movie.

Conversely, the character of Kirill (Vincent Cassell) is a weak point. He is a montage of stereotypes and cliches. He is drunken, weak, impulsive, and stupid. One wonders how someone as loud, annoying, obnoxious, constantly drunk, and incompetent as Kirill could survive in an organization such as the Vory V Zakone when they were warring with the Chechens.

Overall, it is an interesting look at the Russian mafia with a lot of detail such as their system of tattoos and what each tattoo means. If you are not squeamish and don't demand a clear, happy ending then this movie is for you.

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