Forced to clean up someone else's sloppy hit job—in the first of several beyond-disturbing moments of London gangland violence in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises—Viggo Mortensen's slickly coiffed gangster goes about the job with cool, professional reserve. Processing the body requires special emphasis on the teeth and fingers. As Mortensen clips off the latter one by one, Cronenberg keeps the focus on his face, which betrays no flicker of conscience. Here's a man dedicated to getting the job done.
Unfortunately, the character's workmanlike approach seems to have rubbed off on Cronenberg. Working from a script by Steven Knight—who similarly chronicled a London of immigrants, underworld deals, and shadowy hospitals with his script for the Stephen Frears-directed Dirty Pretty Things—Cronenberg brings his usual cool intensity to the film, but not his usual gift for getting under the surface of things. For all the moments of visceral shock (which are many and memorable), the film remains unexpectedly bloodless.
Which isn't to say it's lifeless, since an engaging thriller done in the Cronenberg style is still worth anyone's time. And this one boasts memorable turns from Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Vincent Cassel, plus an audaciously staged, terrifyingly immediate fight scene that action directors will probably spend years failing to top.
Watts plays the daughter of a Russian immigrant and a widowed English mother (Sinéad Cusack); as a midwife, Watts oversees a premature birth that leaves the child's drug-addicted, 14-year-old Russian mother dead. Taking it upon herself to translate the girl's diary, Watts first solicits her vodka-swigging Russian uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), then a restaurant owner (Mueller-Stahl) whose business card she found in the diary. But when Mueller-Stahl takes an unnaturally intense interest in the translation—an interest driven home by the attention of his son (Cassel) and "driver" (Mortensen)—Watts realizes she's in over her head.
Eastern Promises is seldom better than it has to be, in spite of the expected flashes of Cronenberg insight. There's a dinner conversation with Watts' family in which most everyone reveals a degree of casual prejudice, and a long section dedicated to Russian prison tattoos that once again lets Cronenberg write history with bodies. But mostly, it's just an engrossing, politically conscious thriller with superior acting that doesn't reveal how little it's up to until it whiffs to a close.