'Eastern Promises' has strong character development

With films like "Crash" (1996) and "A History of Violence" (2005) listed on his resume, it's clear that David Cronenberg is an accomplished director. It's always refreshing to encounter a filmmaker who relishes character development and a strong narrative arc.

The recently released "Eastern Promises" is no exception. Set in London, it explores the noir world of the Russian mob, inhabited by brutal people who have long ago abandoned any pretense to conscience. Indeed, Cronenberg is drawn to those corners of the human heart that are the darkest while also creating ineluctably engrossing narratives.

If there is any reservation about Cronenberg as a storyteller, it would reside in his use of violence. It is graphic, powerful and, he insists, never gratuitous. Some might disagree. In the opening scene of the film, a man is getting a haircut from a Russian barber. A boy walks in, flips the sign on the door to "closed," and while the man in the chair is held down, cuts his throat, and not without difficulty. The camera never flinches, though the audience does, as gore and blood seep out of the man's throat, onto his white shirt. Immediately Cronenberg puts everyone on notice: be prepared, for this will be a journey to that dark and dank underworld of any large urban city where predators fight for control and power. Violence, immediate, even horrible, is used as part of their discourse.

At the center of the film is a Russian expatriate, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who is the head mobster's driver, and the quintessential anti-hero. It is a stunning performance by Mortensen, whose body is covered in Russian tattoos, depicting his history in prison. Nikolai is also the focus of one of the most intense knife fight scenes ever captured on film: sitting in a Turkish-bath house, he is attacked by two Chechen mobsters. He fights for his life, a struggle that goes on for more than four minutes. He is both lethal and completely vulnerable as he gives no quarter.

In contrast to Nikolai is Anna (Naomi Watts), a hospital midwife, part Russian, and completely unaware of how she is placing herself in harm's way by becoming involved with these people. A young woman gives birth to a small girl and dies in the process. Anna finds her diary, written in Russian. She finds a business card inside with the address of a restaurant. She takes a copy of the diary to the owner, Seyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), grandfatherly, seemingly benign, and profoundly dangerous. There is more in the diary than she can imagine.

"Eastern Promises" is no ordinary film, and not for everyone. But then, Cronenberg will be the first to admit this. Movies are, for many, meant to entertain in the sense that they are life affirming and uplifting. And certainly not without a modicum of complexity. Yet part of life, as viewed through the prism of Cronenberg, is grim, sordid, and never one dimensional. People are contradictory, ambiguous, attractive while being repellent. This was the theme of "Crash," and it is at the center of "Eastern Promises."

'Shoot 'Em Up'

Okay. Fine. If you're a solid filmophile and can't bear the thought of missing a Clive Owen/Paul Giamatti film with the title of "Shoot 'Em Up," then by all means, grab two hours and catch this flick. But know that this is a video game &

hard-core, take no prisoners &

and in video games no one cares about the characters. There's no story, no interaction. Stuff like that gets in the way. Video games all about the hunt, chase, acceleration, carnage, and surviving to kill again. Or whatever.

To be kind, let's call "Shoot 'Em Up" high camp. A comic book film that feels like "Sin City," if it had been shot in Phoenix, Ariz. And let's suspend our disbelief and say that top drawer talent like Giamatti and Owen wouldn't ever get close to a film like this unless they had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks or liked a whole lot the number of zeroes on their pay checks. In any case, the body count is off the charts; but then, who's counting. Nothing means anything. Life doesn't mean anything. Would have been nice if even one character would've been concerned about, say, global warming. Or gun control. Wait. They do mention gun control in this movie. Honest. Oh, yeah. One other thing: there's a baby, and Owen, portraying a hard case named Smith, well, he cares about the baby ... sort of. Maybe. PTA membership in his future? If he lives? Not likely.

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