David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises begins as a kind of transgressive holiday story. Although here, the pregnant woman looking for refuge on Christmas Eve is a 14-year-old Russian prostitute and drug addict who leaks a puddle of blood before collapsing in a London pharmacy.
In a typically Cronenbergian moment of matter-of-fact, almost clinical gore, his camera lingers over the dead woman's newborn baby, whose coating of fluids and blood gives her the waxen look of a doll.
Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, walks away with the dead woman's diary, hoping to trace the relatives who can claim the child.
A business card in the diary leads Anna to the front door of a luxurious, womblike Russian supper club called Trans-Siberian – as perfect and rich as a glazed fruit tart. Stony men in black overcoats and women cocooned in furs whisk in and out engaged in the business of dinner or crime. Walking through Trans-Siberian's door is like entering another world, in this case the epicenter of the Vory V Zakone organized crime family.
With his ice-water eyes and somnambulist demeanor, Trans-Siberian's owner, the regal Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), suggests the kind of man not easily swayed by petty, inconvenient human psychology. But Semyon's burden is deeply psychological: a hapless, drunkard son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who inhibits his reign.
Anna is an ordinary woman who falls through the rabbit hole from her respectable job at a London hospital into this criminal subculture, both warned away and helped by Kirill's "driver" Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Nikolai shepherds Kirill around town, but his job skills are far more diverse, including but certainly not limited to stripping corpses like a car thief, shedding them of their teeth and digits to prevent identification.
As Anna begins to uncover the connections between Semyon's crime syndicate and the prostitute's death, Eastern Promises revisits the themes of infectious thuggery from Cronenberg's previous work, A History of Violence. Also a morally conflicted gangster in that film, in Eastern Promises Mortensen is a Russian gangster caught between the neurotic father-son relationship of his bosses and his ambivalence about the criminal world he occupies. His Nikolai is a kind of pit bull whose choke collar is held with no lack of homoerotic relish by Kirill.
Kirill, deliciously sadistic and pitifully vulnerable as played by the French actor Cassel (Irreversible), is a rogue son reminiscent of melodramatic screwups like the one in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind. In that wonderfully Freudian film, Robert Stack is the drunkard son unable to take over his father's empire. Rock Hudson is the family friend and helpmate, the steely, butch rightful heir to the father's dynasty. It's a triangular setup infused with tears and rage repeated in the characters of Kirill and Nikolai.
Adding even more subtext to that scenario is the sexual vibe of dependency and want that flows between Nikolai and Kirill. The erotic element to their relationship is so tangible that despite one raw sex scene in a brothel, the usual heterosexual coupling required in most films never transpires in Eastern Promises. Cronenberg has a habit of displacing sex in strange ways in his films: onto drugs in Naked Lunch, cars in Crash, surgery in Dead Ringers. In Eastern Promises, the deep bonds between men in this criminal underworld hum with sexual energy. Instead of female beauty, Cronenberg fetishizes the spectacle of Nikolai's exposed and extravagantly tattooed flesh, an illustration of his almost romantic devotion to the crime family.
But the fascinating psychosexual relationship between Kirill and Nikolai and the troubled bond between Kirill and Semyon only serve as reminders of Eastern Promises' lack in other regards. Such details give the film a needed human dimension within a preponderance of gangster-movie clichés.
Steven Knight's script bears echoes of his equally flawed Dirty Pretty Things, a film that dealt with another organized crime syndicate dealing not in poor Russian girls but in poor immigrants' organs. But Knight's overreliance on chestnuts like Semyon's elegant mob kingpin is a played-out notion.
Despite his Russian origin, Semyon is in many ways a movie invention like any of the Italian mobsters we have seen before. He's an aesthete who appreciates fine music, sentiment, family ties and will gingerly place rose petals on an old Russian woman's food even as he orchestrates macabre violence beyond his restaurant doors.
Borrowing freely from the conventions of the Godfather cycle and "Sopranos" thug drama, such crime-family clichés are Eastern Promises' most disappointing feature, considering Cronenberg's usual unmistakably original tone.
Mob turf wars, darkly comic violence, ritualistic executions feel like relatively pedestrian content beside Cronenberg's more troubling psychosexual ambles into the weirdest and goriest reaches of human experience.
Despite Knight's hackneyed touches, Eastern Promises clops along at a satisfying pace, bolstered by the mystery of what Anna will find. But the film's conclusion is a disappointment as the film falls apart into an inconclusive muddle. Interesting ideas are never fleshed out, such as the allegiance to blood and family that unites Anna and her Russian family and the Semyon dynasty. Cassel is vastly entertaining for his mangled English, which only renders comical his tough-guy act. And Mortensen is a sublimely brawny, muscular creature whose physicality recalls movie He-Men from John Garfield to Robert De Niro. There is much to admire about Eastern Promises, but there's also a nagging fear that Cronenberg might be sacrificing his originality to appeal to a wider audience.