Meester Cronenberg, vy did you make sleazy B-movie?
I couldn't help it. That question rang through my head (and rings still) as I watched David Cronenberg's 2007 film EASTERN PROMISES. The question repeated itself in a caricatured Russian accent as I shook my head in disbelief at the choices the director made with what should have been a strong, sober drama. Well, it is pretty strong at times, and it plays everything fairly straight, but I was laughing in all the wrong places.
What was so funny? Well, first off, and this is my own little problem: I find Russian accents hilarious. Not only when someone attempts the accent, but genuine ones as well. It's my own personal comedy hell. It largely affects my appreciation of what Cronenberg, writer Steven Knight, and a choice cast were trying to do with this film.
Watching EASTERN PROMISES again, though, I thought back to other films and television programs that featured Russian accents so prominently. Surely I wasn't laughing during Tarkovskiy's works?! Closer inspection after a few years of analysis reveals why I think this particular movie is just so silly: it's a sleazy B-movie that thinks it's A-list prime. Classic overreaching.
Now, there are many Bs out there that are head and shoulders above their pack with their thoughtful narratives and uncommon intelligence. Think: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13(1976 version), PHASE IV, BOBBY JO AND THE OUTLAW, BOXCAR BERTHA, to name a few. All are essentially exploitation pics that dare to have a point of view amongst the naughty content and violence. EASTERN PROMISES announces itself with unapologetic B-movie glee in its opening scenes, when a gangster has his throat slashed in a barber chair by rivals. The camera wastes no time zooming into the vigourous slicing, lovingly presented in a fountain of bloodletting. The scene is so over-the-top it did not horrify me, it made me laugh. Above all, it made me want to applaud the squib department, honestly.
The storyline? An English midwife named Anna(Naomi Watts)discovers a diary left behind by a young teenaged mother who dies giving birth. The words are in Russian, prompting her to have her uncle translate. He's skeptical and nervous about the task. Meanwhile, Anna also discovers a link with the dead girl to a restaurant owner who happens to be a Russian mob kingpin, Semyon (Armin-Meuller Stahl).
Semyon is a cold-blooded, old school iron fist. Like many filmic mob bosses, he's embarrased by his haphazard offspring, this one named Kirill (Vincent Cassell), and his recklessness. Kirill is a bad dude, and none too sharp to boot. Anna will learn that this guy played a very large role in the dead girl's life and death.
Anna also meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), Semyon's chauffeur and all-around dirty work guy. He, on the other hand, is deft with his wits and hands, and catches the favor of Semyon. Anna has a rather adversarial relationship with Nikolai, seeming in every other scene to yell at him as he straps on a motorcycle helmet. Their scenes are straight out of B-television soap opera. Nikolai will go on to be front and center in family (and Mob) politics. We will also be treated to what I considered to be a ludicrous and cop-out plot twist with him in the final reel.
Ludicrous is really the best descriptor I can use for EASTERN PROMISES. While the screenplay offers some fascinating details of Russian criminal life (including the importance of all those tattoos), mostly this is a low grade programmer that seems more interested in being an adult comic book. Do I need to cite the centerpiece, the ultraviolent nude scuffle in the Turkish baths between Nikolai and a would be assailant? Now, admittedly, this is a great tongue-in-cheek scene, but in the context of a film that tries to be serious, it just unscores my point. Its heart isn't in quality storytelling/filmmaking, but in the muck.
I have nothing against using the strong ingredients of violence, sexuality, profanity, and nudity if there is a purpose to the artists' directive. A case needs to be made for a writer or director to incoporate these elements. Namely, does the scene need to be graphic in some way in order to best relay the message? If not, it becomes exploitation. Elements presented for their own sakes. Cronenberg's just previous, mostly triumphant film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE used all of the above elements to effective ends, to bring across powerful messages. The director's early resume included several lurid gorefests like RABID and SHIVERS that were awash in adult content and were by definition, B-movies, but I never questioned any one scene for its content. As extreme as they were, it all made sense to the story being told. In EASTERN PROMISES, to me, it all just feels like old school grindhouse fare.
Part One, "The Great Overrated" Series.