Posted by: Joe McCulloch on September 25, 2007
So I did wind up seeing Eastern Promises, the new David Cronenberg thing, and it was good stuff. I liked it more than A History of Violence, which can be considered a companion film of sorts, given that both pictures see Viggo Mortensen as a man of secrets caught up in the world of organized crime, with violence meeting violence and family ties frayed.
The prior film struck me as really heavy-handed and sorta banal with its mannered small town American archetypes giving way to bloodletting… it was like a lot of high-fiving and shouting WE HAVE ACHIEVED SUBTEXT without anyone pausing to check if the subtext had much of interest in it. Oh, I enjoyed the contrasting sex scenes as much as everyone else, and it had a good ending. Like, the whole last 15 or so minutes with William Hurt were pretty swell, in that they shove the movie halfway into farce and really play up the awkwardness of person-to-person combat. I don’t even think there’s any music in those scenes, just Viggo Mortensen and random goons tumbling around rooms and stuff.
Actually, those were also the only parts where I picked up much John Wagner flavor, although I haven’t read the original comic and I think Cronenberg changed most of it anyway. Hmm.
So, Eastern Promises was better for me. It’s leaner and more subdued, and doesn’t draw so much attention to its themes, although they’re pretty tightly wound into the story. This time Viggo’s a driver for the Russian mob in London, standing around and looking cool in a real movie star type of performance, trying to work his way up in the ranks of crime while keeping his hands sorta clean of the nastiest parts of the business. But concerned midwife Naomi Watts keeps butting her head into business after a teenage prostitute dies in childbirth and leaves behind an incriminating diary, eventually leading to some big time trouble with the father-and-son crime elites Viggo’s working with.
Lots and lots of stuff going on with ‘family’ and ‘heritage,’ although I think the most Cronenbergian touch is the use of skin alterations — tattoos and scars — as the living biography of a man. If there’s anything in this movie you’ve probably already heard about it’s a big bathhouse fight toward the end between a naked Mortensen and a pair of knife-wielding assassins, and it mostly lived up to the hype for me. I mean, if there’s anything Cronenberg always does right it’s shooting scenes of violence in a way that slaps the audience around a little, real visceral and nasty stuff, and yet… the fight scene also totally pays off on the running skin motif, with every new cut a more ‘real’ biography for the character, augmenting the ritual of tattooing.
I don’t think it’s quite a great movie, mind you – just like in A History of Violence, with Viggo’s son getting his own (awful) subplot only to get booted off the screen after a while, the whole Naomi Watts angle gets badly overpowered by the end. It hurts this film more, since she’s a co-star at the start, and then has so little to do by the end it’s like the movie itself got bored with her. The climax is overbaked and kind of ridiculous (and this time it doesn’t help the rest of the film), with some really strained plot movements hammering characters toward resolution. Even then, there’s a nicely ambiguous final shot (which, again, mirrors that of Cronenberg’s prior film).
Yeah, I liked it. A high GOOD, maybe? A low VERY GOOD? Thank god this isn’t comics reviewing, where all my grades are read back to me after I die to see if it’s the Lake of Fire or not.
The Programme #3 (of 12): I don’t have all that much to say about this issue. It’s more over-the-top political superhero soap opera from writer Peter Milligan, with dangerous beings breaking things in a haze (literally, thanks to C.P. Smith and colorist Jonny Rench) while government operatives pose dramatically and swap venom. I think the tone is best summed up when a government man mentions how America’s errant superman threw him around like a rag doll, only for a liberal scientist type to reply “Now you know how the rest of the world feels about the United States,” finger pointed outward. Then the scientist gives his best Don’t Tase Me, Bro face after the rest of the present cast threaten to lock him in the cellar for the night. It’ll be pretty funny if the character’s entire role in the series is to make strident political points and then immediately back down when threatened. Maybe even clever.
Anyhow, the best parts are still hogged by the emerging superhumans (‘superpowers’ of a bygone Cold War age come back to life, don’t ya know), one of which seems to have the power to make Joseph Stalin’s disembodied head appear in the sky to evaporate oncoming aircraft. In those segments, Milligan’s pushy dialogue and Smith’s & Rench’s garish visuals are free to expand to rightfully operatic proportions, while the human bits often come off as overblown. Still mired in EH, but the development promised by the last page might push it farther either way, all by itself.