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The mysterious and charismatic Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is a driver for one of London's most notorious organized crime families of Eastern European origin. The family itself is part of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood. Headed by Semyon (Academy Award nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose courtly charm as the welcoming proprietor of the plush Trans-Siberian restaurant impeccably masks a cold and brutal core, the family's fortunes are tested by Semyon's volatile son and enforcer, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is more tightly bound to Nikolai than to his own father. But Nikolai's carefully maintained existence is jarred once he crosses paths at Christmastime with Anna Khitrova (Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts), a midwife at a North London hospital. Anna is deeply affected by the desperate situation of a young teenager who dies while giving birth to a baby. Anna resolves to try to trace the baby's lineage and relatives. The girl's personal diary also survives her; it is written in Russian, and Anna seeks answers in it. Anna's mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) does not discourage her, but Anna's irascible Russian-born uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) urges caution. He is right to do so; by delving into the diary, Anna has accidentally unleashed the full fury of the Vory. With Semyon and Kirill closing ranks and Anna pressing her inquiries, Nikolai unexpectedly finds his loyalties divided. The family tightens its grip on him; who can, or should, he trust? Several lives - including his own - hang in the balance as a harrowing chain of murder, deceit, and retribution reverberates through the darkest corners of both the family and London itself.
For more about Eastern Promises and the Eastern Promises Blu-ray release, see Eastern Promises Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 8, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, Sinéad Cusack, Donald Sumpter
Director: David Cronenberg
» See full cast & crew
Eastern Promises Blu-ray Review
“In Russian prisons, your life is written on your body—in tattoos.”
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 8, 2009
A tattoo can be many things—a reminder, a history, a physical representation of pain and permanence—and director David Cronenberg, celebrated auteur of visceral films like Shivers, The Fly, and Videodrome, knows full well that the mutability of our bodies is just as much a source of archetypal horror as things that go bump in the night. While in recent years he's moved on to more psychological fare, Cronenberg's latter-day works still demonstrate a keen fascination with corporal themes. 2005's A History of Violence, for instance, shows, in unfettered detail, the brutal consequences a bullet at close range has on an assailant's face. The squirm-inducing imagery, however, is a mere surface-level shock. The film's real message is in its subtext, that violence is a soul-sucking, family-destroying maelstrom that is not easily escaped. Eastern Promises, Cronenberg's thematic follow-up, plays with a similar duality. The skin of the film is inked with distressing physical brutality, while its meat and bones, its emotional core, is a cold examination of whether violence and lies are ever really justified.
Set in London, within the tradition-steeped world of the vory v zakone—the Russian mob —Eastern Promises opens with two gruesome acts of blood-letting. In the first, a barbershop client gets the closest shave of his life when an assassin's strait-blade seesaws his jugular. Immediately following, a 14-year old pregnant prostitutzia hemorrhages all over the linoleum floor of a local pharmacy. She dies in childbirth, but mid-wife Anna Khitrova (a beautiful and convincing Naomi Watts) manages to save her baby and retrieve the girl's diary, a slim tome that describes a sordid life of rape, forced addiction, and woe. The two events seem unrelated, but traced causally backwards they both lead to one man: Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a shrewd Russian mob boss caught in a small-scale war with some rival Chechens. Mueller-Stahl imbues Semyon with a laconic, old-world weariness. He's a convincing character, but since we never see him commit any of the vicious crimes he accused of, he feels at times like a de-clawed tiger. Set in narrative orbit around Semyon are Kirill (a slippery Vincent Cassel), his alcoholic screw-up of a son, and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), Kirill's driver and low-man on the vory totem- pole. Make no mistake, however, this is Viggo's film. He surges and smolders with an Eastern-bloc swagger, a tight-jawed and thick fisted performance that is, I'd say, the highlight of his career thus far.
At turns coolly detached, violently capable, and resigned to compassion, Viggo's Nikolai is the film's central enigma. See him prune the fingers off a corpse with workman-like casualness. Observe his heightened senses as he gouges out the eye of an attacker. Then, almost inexplicably, watch as he extends a figurative lifeline to a prostitute who would die without his help. His motivations aren't the only puzzle. Nikolai's body is a veritable cryptogram; the tattoos that tell his life story are only accessible to the initiated. For those in the know, however, he is an open book, each significant event of his criminal career etched out in India ink. The tattoos are a blessing and a curse with the vory v zakone. They can confer honor, yes, but they can also serve to mark the adorned—in another sense—as a target.
The film's famous bathhouse scene has Nikolai, in the nude, his tats flying in green-with-age glory, being attacked by a pair of Chechen thugs. Viggo's full-frontal nudity has been much- discussed, but it goes largely unnoticed, simply because Cronenberg shoots the scene with such brisk, unrelenting realism. Nudity aside, the violence in the film does seem highly sexualized. While A History of Violence rang out with gunshots galore, not a single firearm is present in Eastern Promises. The weapons on display are all of the intimate, hands-on variety— straight razors, knives, and scimitar-like linoleum cutters. The film throbs with a repressed undertone. As a boys-only style institution, the vory v zakone clearly have some issues recognizing that homosexuality does exist within their ranks. Cronenberg toys with this idea in a subtle way, and it's interesting to watch the angst that seethes below Kirill and Nikolai's comrades-in-arms relationship.
As a whole, Eastern Promises is a much better film than A History of Violence, but it does feel like a little more of the same. They are certainly companion pieces, however, and one thing I enjoyed about both films is that they each feel like smaller stories within a much larger narrative world. Nikolai's past and future are obscured to us, and I like that Cronenberg allows Eastern Promises to end with certain ambiguities in place.
Eastern Promises Blu-ray, Video Quality
Like blood from a severed artery, Eastern Promises spills onto the screen with a vibrant and lifelike urgency, thanks to an excellent 1.85:1 1080p VC-1 transfer that clearly values its source image. Cronenberg's vision of London's seamy underbelly is bleak in narrative tone but thoroughly lush in bold, cinematic color. The interior of the Trans-Siberian restaurant is particularly vivid, with deep greens, rich crushed-velvet reds, and dark woods, all belonging to that warm, movie-land world where colors are somehow realer than real. As in most gangster films, leather jackets are a staple in Eastern Promises, and they serve as a good indication of the how deep the blacks can get in this film and still retain detail in the shadows. I was similarly wowed by the amount of sharpness on display, none of it showing any evidence of edge-enhancement. The thugs that populate the Russian mafia have had hard lives, and the sheer detail this transfer is capable of is well exemplified in the creases, folds, and furrowed brows that line each care-worn face. In fact, I was hard pressed to find any serious visual deficiencies. The biggest gripes I can muster would be the presence of some white specks on the print, and the smallest, slightest bit of banding in the bathhouse steam. Otherwise, in its confident colors and precision detail, this transfer definitely lives up to its high- definition name.
Eastern Promises Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The audio portion of this AV package introduces itself with a crisp thunderclap and a broad pattering of omni-directional rainfall, announcing from the outset its intention to create and sustain a foreboding tone. While most of the action of the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track is piped from the front speakers, the rear channels do get several opportunities to build a convincing soundscape, especially during the hoopla of hooligans outside the soccer match. Voices are well-placed in the mix, and the many thuds, cracks, and crunches of physical violence are all rendered with nuance and heft. In addition, composer Howard Shore provides a tense and somewhat understated score that complements the unfolding drama while letting the inherent tension of each scene speak for itself. Though it lacks the whiz-bang wow factor of more action-heavy titles, the track is a competent and full-bodied accompaniment to the film's striking visual appeal.
Eastern Promises Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Secrets and Stories (1080i, 10:32)
Director David Cronenber, writer Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), and key cast members give a brief but informative look into the world of the Russian mafia, discuss some of the central themes of the film, and provide some colorful context regarding the extensive research and preparation that preceded its filming. Cronenberg has always been drawn to "enclosed, hermetically sealed cultures" and this one is no different. It's a pleasure listening to him talk about his work and interests, particularly because he's so intelligent, concise, and sure of his decisions. While this short but meaty feature stands on its own, it really makes me wish Cronenberg had decided to supply a commentary track.
Marked for Life (1080i, 6:42)
Viggo Mortensen is known to thoroughly investigate his roles, and in Eastern Promises his explorations actually changed the script in some drastic and crucial ways, namely the inclusion of Russian prison tattoos and their complex symbology. Intercut with behind the scenes footage displaying Viggo's progression of tats, this short featurette explains the role of tattooing in the film and illuminates the otherwise esoteric meanings of the inked inscriptions that litter his body.
Two Guys Walk Into A Bathhouse (1080i, 1:55)
Cronenberg and Mortensen share brief insights into the filming of the ultra-violent, hyper-realistic bathhouse brawl.
Watts on Wheels (1080i, 0:55)
Naomi Watts learned how to ride a motorcycle for the film, and she can now add that to the list of skills she can present to potential directors. Look at that, I just saved you fifty-five seconds.
The package also includes the "My Scenes" feature, which allows you to bookmark your favorite scenes and even create your own custom clips to view later.
Eastern Promises Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Deftly directed and featuring some impressive, transformational performances by its key actors, Eastern Promises is quite an experience to behold. It somehow manages to be shocking without being gratuitous and take an almost philosophical view of violence without falling into a black and white morality scheme. With great sound, and an almost reference-level picture, this Blu- ray disc belongs in the collections of all but the most squeamish of viewers.
Eastern Promises: Other Editions
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