Eastern Promises (2007) Blu-ray Review: The Fellowship of the Mafia Ring

For most people, Viggo Mortensen’s star power was recognized after his performance as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite having been in the industry for nearly 20 years prior, his performances were mostly supporting and not quite as known or acclaimed until after Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning franchise. So it came as a surprise to most when shortly after The Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo, both with wide appeal and aimed more toward attracting families, Mortensen accepted lead roles in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both of which are dark and violent tales about a man and the lives that surround him.

Since the early 2000s, Cronenberg, mostly known for being a cult director and an expert in crafting some gnarly body horror imagery, has taken a stab at different films out of his normal repertoire and some have more mainstream appeal. Not that that’s a bad thing at all; it showcases how the now 79-year-old director wants to broaden his horizon and also attract some newer audiences. Like A History of Violence before it, Eastern Promises is a story about a man and his involvement in the crime world. The former is how the man left and it later came back to haunt him. The current is about a man’s present involvement and how it affects him and the choices he makes.

Cronenberg doesn’t shy away from graphic imagery, with the first image being that of a man’s throat getting slit by a straight razor. But if you’re expecting the likes of Videodrome or The Fly, this isn’t the place. Eastern Promises is still an expertly crafted film, and watching it now makes one yearn for something about the mafia that is as well put together like this and not directed by the usual filmmakers who tackle a genre like this.

Mortensen plays Nikolai, who works as a cleaner for the Vory V Zakone crime organization, a major leader in the Russian mafia. He also serves as a driver for Kiril (Vincent Cassel), the scumbag son of the organization’s leader Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). While Kiril is the young, loose cannon of the organization, Nikolai is mainly there to follow orders and ensure operations run smoothly.

Nikolai is torn between maintaining the position he holds and his loyalty to the Vory V Zakone organization – at least, that’s how it’s perceived – and doing the right thing. This becomes a major decision after a midwife (Naomi Watts) enters the scene and informs Nikolai about a pregnant teenager who died on her shift. The teen hemorrhaged and had needle holes in her arm. However, the baby survived, and a diary left behind detailed the incidents that took place and potentially involve Vory V Zakone.

After seeing his turn in a big franchise like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it would be hard to imagine that Mortensen would not only take the lead in a film but also in one that – at first blush – seems out of the ordinary. The merging of Cronenberg and Mortensen for A History of Violence was pitch-perfect for a film that showcased a man having to make the right decision for his family. For Eastern Promises, it’s similar in that a man has to make the right decision but is it for the family for which he works – and to which he has no bloodline connection – or is it based on his moral compass?

Eastern Promises became the film in which Mortensen showcases just how tremendous of a performer he truly is. Although the viewer recognizes him by his looks, the dark, violent character he plays is unlike anything he had ever done prior. It’s frightening to watch just how far Nikolai can go, and Mortensen handles it without hesitation.

What initially looks like a diversion for both Cronenberg and Mortensen results in something that both seemed to have years of experience in tackling. With a lovely score by Howard Shore and fantastic camerawork by Peter Suschitzky, Eastern Promises is the textbook definition of what a good crime drama should be like. It’s also a perfect example of how mafia movies should focus more on the characters’ approach and development to criminal acts rather than making the acts the center of the story.

Eastern Promises comes to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber with a magnificent 4K transfer. The film looks like it was just recently released to theaters, and it’s 15 years old at this point. The sound is nice and clear, capturing the beauty of Shore’s score and some of the intense moments – including a fight in a sauna near the end terrifically. There are only a handful of special features here, most of them from previous releases. Two of them are theatrical trailers Three of them feature discussions with Cronenberg, while another is with Watts. The only new interview with this release is with screenwriter Steven Knight.

Cronenberg has always been an intriguing director, giving viewers some of the most intense and horrifying moments in film history. Eastern Promises is another beast itself. It’s a slow burn, one that crackles with tension the more it progresses. It’s one of the best mafia films in recent memory.

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David Wangberg

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