The life of a Russian gangster, with a heart. Forget about the story, which is a slight thing, and more than a little obvious. It’s elevated — from an auteurist perspective at least — by Cronenberg’s pedigree, although it’s perhaps the most conventional of the director’s many genre-tweaking exercises. But this expertly modulated B-movie exercise in tension and release is really the Viggo Mortensen show — he spends most of the movie with the kind of confident almost-grin on his face that suggests he’s the only one who realizes that a joke is being told. It’s not until a punishing action scene, in which Mortensen’s Nikolai fights for his life, nude, in a Russian bath house, that he delivers the punchline. Like the superior A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is a deliberately modest but sophisticated (and quite entertaining) accomplishment.
AMY TAUBIN: I found a piece that someone had posted on Ain’t It Cool News about having seen a preview of [Eastern Promises].
DAVID CRONENBERG: Was it the guy who was obsessed with Viggo’s balls?
AT: I don’t know if I performed an act of repression, but I don’t remember seeing his balls.
DC: You do see them. It’s just that they go by rather quickly.
AT: Right. I meant I didn’t notice them in particular.
DC: It wasn’t like there was a close-up of them. But this guy was obsessed. He even wrote “big hairy balls.” Well, that’s one way of looking at it. They’re definitely there, as you would imagine, but it’s only if you’re looking for them that that’s what you see. Because mostly he’s shot in full figure. So when people decide to run the DVD frame by frame, they are going to see everything at one point or another. Of course, a lot of the time it’s going to be slightly blurred because he’s in motion.
Excerpted from “Foreign Affairs”, Film Comment, September/October 2007