An organized crime investigator once tried to explain what it was like tracking Russian mobster immigrants in his East Coast city. His only comparison, he said, was to an earlier generation of American cops in the last century and their efforts to keep tabs on newly arrived Italian gangsters.
“It’s like tracking the Sicilians back in the 1920s,” he said of the Russians settling into his city’s Eastern European ethnic neighborhoods—where police are neither welcomed nor trusted. “They speak a different language. They have a different culture. And even honest citizens in their community don’t want anything to do with us.”
He and others in law enforcement estimate it will take at least another generation before they really have a handle on the Russian mobsters in their midst.
Today Vory v Zakone (thieves in law), as the Russian mob is known, is as mysterious and impenetrable as the Mafia used to be. Once a highly secretive society, today the Italian-American crime syndicate is part of our pop culture. Indeed, the word “mafia” is now a generic term applied almost arbitrarily to any ethnic criminal group, including the Russians. Google the words “Russian Mafia” and you’ll get nearly three million hits.
But the Russian mob in America doesn’t have a face. There is no Al Capone or John Gotti, no Vito Corleone or Tony Soprano.
While set in London, Eastern Promises takes a first step toward introducing the American general public to the Russian underworld. In this well-crafted and superbly acted film, director David Cronenberg uses a narrow focus to tell a much broader story, a technique that pays huge dividends.
The diary of Tatiana (Tatiana Maslany), a 14-year-old, drug-addicted prostitute who dies while giving birth to a daughter in a London hospital, sets the film in motion. Her account of how and why she came to London—provided by periodic voice-overs as the diary is translated from Russian—offers a back story of the mob’s involvement in white slavery and English brothels.
Anna (Naomi Watts), a half-Russian, half-English midwife who finds the diary after helping deliver the young teen’s child, hopes to use it to locate family members of the now orphaned baby.
Instead, the diary and a business card for the Trans-Siberian Restaurant leads her to Russian mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his bumbling gangster son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill’s associate and driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).
“I’m driver,” Nikolai tells Anna during the first of several brief encounters that Cronenberg skillfully uses to establish a relationship between the two. “I go left. I go right. I go straight. That’s it.”
But Nikolai is clearly much more than just a driver.
Mortensen, who spent time in the Urals “absorbing” the Russian temperament before filming began, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis won for There Will Be Blood). His performance dominates the movie.
As in his earlier work with Cronenberg in A History of Violence, Mortensen portrays a complex character with a murky past. And like that earlier film, Eastern Promises raises a fundamental question about violence: can it ever be justified?
Joe Morgenstern, writing in the Wall Street Journal, noted that Mortensen’s “mercurial portrayal makes it equally plausible that Nikolai is a guardian angel with dirty wings or a suave thug with surface sanctity.” Either way, Nikolai is a gangster who “meets brutality with brute force,” Morgenstern wrote.
Early in the film, he helps dispose of the body of a Chechen mobster Kirill has had killed. But first, he decides to hinder future identification of the corpse using pliers and a knife. Before he begins that gruesome task—and with a twinkle in his eye—he tells an associate, “Now I’m going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers. . . . You might want to leave the room.” Then he casually puts a cigarette out on his own tongue before beginning the process.
This is one tough Russian.
His body, covered in tattoos from his days as a prisoner in Russian jails, further enhances his status with Semyon and other members of Vory v Zakone.
He is cold and uncaring as he dismisses the fate of Tatiana and that of her daughter during one conversation with Anna. But in another, he seems genuinely concerned as he cautions her not to pursue the issue of the prostitute’s death with Semyon.
“Anger is very dangerous,” he says after Anna shouted about the need to know what happened to Tatiana and why. “It makes people do stupid things. Stay away from people like me.”
Anna, of course, cannot. And that drives the story. Her Russian uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowksi) and her English mother Helen (Sinead Cusack) both caution her to let it go.
“This isn’t our world,” her mother tells her. “We are ordinary people.”
But Anna won’t hear it.
German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl is both avuncular and heartless as Semyon, the man most responsible for Tatiana’s plight. His posh, old world-style restaurant offers vodka, borscht and violence in equal measures as the story unfolds.
In the meantime, Semyon’s incompetent (and perhaps sexually conflicted) son Kirill blunders his way through the London underworld. Think Fredo with a Russian accent. His penchant for screwing up nearly costs Nikolai his life and sets up one of the most dramatic fight scenes in gangster movie history. Naked in a steam bath, his tattooed torso fully exposed, Nikolai takes on two knife-wielding Chechen hit men. The pair has come to London to avenge the murder of their brother—whose toothless, fingerless body was recovered by authorities after it had been dumped in the Thames.
The fight scene, wrote critic Roger Ebert (more from him below), “sets the same kind of standard that The French Connection set for chases. Years from now, it will be referred to as a benchmark.”
As more is learned about Russian organized crime in England and the United States, the same may be said for Eastern Promises. It is a fascinating story and one that introduces a new facet of the gangster genre to American pop culture.
“I need to know who you are,” Anna says to Nikolai during one of their last encounters.
So do we.
HIT: The foreign and brutal nature of the Vory v Zakone comes across throughout the film. Nikolai has to renounce his own family during the equivalent of a making ceremony. He also very cavalierly dismisses the death of Tatiana and the fate of her infant when he tells Anna, “Slaves give birth to slaves.” This is a cold and uncaring underworld.
MISS: Rowdy soccer fans on the way to a match are used as a cover for the Chechen hit men’s first murder. The gory and graphic throat slitting occurs in broad daylight as the crowd surges toward the stadium. This takes soccer violence to a new, and somewhat unrealistic, level.
BEST LINE: “I fear you more than I fear them,” says Azim (Mina E. Mina) after he double-crosses the Chechen hit men by telling Semyon what they are planning.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The actors and the characters merge and form a reality above and apart from the story, and the result is a film that takes us beyond crime and London and the Russian mafia and into the mystifying realms of human nature.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: While the movie is graphic in its violence, it is one of the few genuine gangster films in which there is no gunplay. Knives are the weapons of choice.
REPEAT WATCHING QUOTIENT: This is the kind of movie that is worth revisiting regularly. Mortensen’s performance provides new surprises each time and the character relationships are richer with each new look.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Mortensen, a huge NHL fan, based his character’s voice and mannerisms on those of Russian hockey player Alex Kovalev.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Vincent Cassel, the French actor who played Kirill, appeared as “Night Fox,” the international thief François Toulour in Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen.
BODY COUNT: Five, counting Tatiana’s death during childbirth.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”