Is there anything on earth more repugnant than a Russian? Between Stalin, Hitler, and a bucket full of czars, at least 100 million were slaughtered and sent back to the stinking soil from whence they came, but still they wouldn’t go the way of the dinosaur. Even the Chernobyl disaster, by rights the final death blow to the Soviet empire, was not sufficiently grotesque to eliminate their stock from mankind’s genetic pool party. Sure, they die easily — and often — via the blade, musket, machine gun, and starvation, but there’s no heartier bunch of oxen to be found among the dog-eared pages of our hellish history. Reduce a village to ash and rubble, and within weeks, new weeds sprout again, ready to take their place among the ghosts of the damned. And so we arrive at Eastern Promises, a film ostensibly about the modern incarnation of the Russian mob, which is, in fact, a portrait of sadism incarnate; the very unsuitability for civilized society that the Russian symbolizes from greasy top to blood-soaked bottom. Taken pure, and as a narrative of the old school, David Cronenberg’s film, though not as wholly ridiculous as his previous slog through absurdity, A History of Violence, is still an exercise in emptiness, for what else is learned save the notion that gangsters live by the very sword that serves to bring about their own destruction? Or that godfathers protect their own pitiful secrets above all, or that the bonds of blood lead to final act betrayals? If so, then we are asked to accept the truly directionless as high art, needing only the prestige of a well-respected director to distract from its hollow shell.
For much of the first half, I was reasonably engaged, as I expected to be bored out of my skull and instead had a reason to stick around. Still, I’ve had it with the fucking mafia, as the book has been closed on what they mean to the human experience for at least a decade now. Every character has been probed, every metaphor established and run through, and yes, every stereotype exploited to the point of caricature. “Honor among thieves,” once reasonably illuminating as a theme, no longer serves any real cinematic purpose, as no one on the right side of sanity really cares that rapists and assassins have a soft spot for old ladies and infants, or that even after cutting off some poor sap’s balls, they can pull it all together for Chinese takeout. Fine, the Russian variety of criminal activity is slightly less tiresome than the Italian, but even that is little more than a hodgepodge of leather overcoats, dark sunglasses, dime store accents, slick hair, and at least one steaming pot of borscht that is offered to the sort of person most likely to compare it to the kind papa used to make. And (sigh) we even have the undercover man, who’s all tough guy when he needs to be, but has enough decency to help fix a woman’s bike, or save a squealing infant from its permanent baptism in the Thames. It’s a tad less grating that this slab of masculinity, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), is a turncoat rather than the standard killer with a heart of gold, but at the point when we learn his true identity, it’s not so much a surprise as a confirmation of the screenplay’s lack of imagination. Even a hostile witness is spared; sent packing to some resort in Scotland rather than split wide open and left for the buzzards.
For a time, I had visions of writer Steven Knight’s Dirty Pretty Things, a dark, blissful journey into the London underworld that managed to transcend its location and hit the social conscience without once setting foot on the soapbox. Here we have teenage prostitution, a bloody, drugged-up zombie giving birth before expiring, and all sorts of throats meeting the wrong end of a razor blade. As soon as Anna (Naomi Watts) entered the picture, I had an idea where it was going, but held out hope that she’d take her own journey and end up scarred and forever changed. After all, she finds the deceased whore’s diary and while seeking to have it translated, comes across a nasty mob boss, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who knows its contents and would like to see them permanently erased. But rather than acting as a springboard to a larger examination of crime, carnage, and the “legitimate” world’s reliance on each, the story goes no further than a old goat’s desire to keep quiet the fact that he raped and impregnated a girl who later turned up dead. No one would have been served by self-righteous bombast regarding the sexual slave trade, but please, can we have more at stake than a patriarch’s position in his crime family? That we’re not asked to care beyond this narrow scope is a testament to how often the cinema resorts to sheer laziness when it can’t find the stones to name names.
We even have the sequence where the big cheese, needing to settle old scores, betrays a trusted friend to spare his own son. We also know that the betrayed (Nikolai) will survive the hit, and live on to redeem himself in front of the woman who has, until that moment, considered him slime. Maybe they’ll raise the kid together. The hit in question, considered one of the year’s most kinetic action sequences, is unique in that it takes place in a bath house and features a fully nude — and uncircumcised — protagonist, but I saw little that wasn’t a confirmation of the genre’s pathological homoeroticism. At one point, with Nikolai spread-eagle on the heaving body of his victim, ass cheeks glistening like a pale Russian moon, he grunts and thrusts as if his very life depends on reaching the inner sanctum of the dying man’s bowels. The whole thing wasn’t one for the ages, but at least it broke up the tedium, and I had a good laugh watching muscle heads try yet again to act as if they didn’t join the life just to have these opportunities with the same persuasion. Still, it was a mistake not to connect this bit of Greco-Roman wrestling with Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is actually rumored to be gay, a “slur” which motivated one of the movie’s initial murders. Kirill confirms his desires when he insists that Nikolai fuck a prostitute in his presence, which he claims is his way of proving that he’s “not a queer.” It’s a thread worth pursuing, but the film kills it at the point it becomes most interesting. Again, Cronenberg could have been one of the few A-list directors to blast open America’s gay underbelly with one swishy swoop, but instead assumed we cared who the hell got the damn baby and whether or not Nikolai kept his gig with Scotland Yard.
But it all comes back to the Russians, and how easily they’ve become cinematic villains once again, even without the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads. Whether a consolidated mass of peasantry, or a chain of dreary republics in search of civilization, Russians and their neighbors-in-crime (Ukrainians, Chechens, etc.) are as synonymous with death and misery as a people could ever hope to be. Graft and greed are so endemic to the region, in fact, that it’s doubtful the language itself can account for an alternative. This says nothing of their piss-poor customer service skills, boorish behavior, and a misogyny so deep that women actually consider indentured servitude in some fat Ohioan’s basement an improvement on the daily grind of Kiev street life. Russian women hear the clang of rubles, and like Pavlov’s proverbial mutt, spread their pussies as wide as the radioactive hole in Reactor Four. It’s all they know, or could know, as they are a people swallowed whole by the dehumanizing effect of the cash nexus. It’s why putting a bullet in a rival’s head, or blasting away hundreds of theatergoers, or slaughtering school children is no different than waiting in bread lines; it’s a sickness of the soul. Pathology as DNA. Cronenberg could have taken this approach, blasting forth a thunderclap unseen since the heyday of Cold War propaganda, but instead chose the requisite swatting at flies. It’s about a lonely girl, a cute baby, and a heart turning at just the right moment. It’s gutless and unwise, when now is the time for giants.