Eastern Promises Reviewed
Viggo Mortsensen plays Nikolai, a thief-in-law (zakon) in London
Just as movies about gangsters were going out of style in Russia, Eastern Promises came out in the West. Released one year ago today, David Cronenberg's crime drama about Russian mobsters in the United Kingdom grossed $51 million worldwide and won critical acclaim for the performance of its star, Viggo Mortensen, as a mob enforcer.
The film was also noteworthy among critics for its brutal scenes, including an opening sequence in which a rival mob boss is nearly decapitated in a barber shop, and for a knife fight in which a naked Nikolai (Mortensen) fights off knife-wielding Chechen attackers in a London banya, eventually carving them up with their own meat-cleavers.
Watch a trailer for Eastern Promises
Director David Cronenberg should be commended for refusing to glamorize the mafia or organized crime, something Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese was accused of doing with his Godfather trilogy. In the early Nineties Scorsese wrote that one of the reasons he made the mobsters in Goodfellas so stupid and boring in comparison to the Corleone family was to de-glamorize organized crime. Goodfellas basically numbs viewers with the character's f-bombs and senseless beatings, and Scorsese in Casino took this pattern even further with his notorious scene involving Joe Pesci's character getting beaten to death with a baseball bat. For their part, many FBI surveillence experts have remarked at how often the real-life hoods they were watch talk about The Sopranos. In that HBO series, many of Tony Soprano's biggest headaches came from his Russian mistress and powerful Russian competitors.
Similar to his film which also starred Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence, Cronenberg puts a lot of blood on the screen, and the victims are usually stabbed or bludgeoned to death rather than killed in glamorous, violence-porn bouts of gunplay. It would be difficult to draw a sharper contrast between Eastern Promises and such "look at this guy's head explode" trash flicks as Shoot Em' Up.
WARNING: Plot Spoiler Alert
The movie is also worth watching for its comment on the problem of human trafficking. The story begins with Kirill launching unauthorized hit on a rival Russian businessman and his Chechen partner. Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) a 14 year-old Russian girl drops dead in a London hospital from premature childbirth. It is later revealed from her diary that she was raped by the mob boss Semyon (veteran actor Armin Muehler-Stahl). Semyon and his son Kirill (French actor Vincent Cassel) run a Russian restaurant as a cover for their drug smuggling and prostitution rings in greater London.
As it becomes clear to Kirill that his father trusts Nikolai more than his own flesh and blood, Kirill tries to get Nikolai directly involved in abusing the prostitutes, who have been trafficked into the UK from small towns and villages in Russia and Ukraine. When Kirill insists that Nikolai take one of the prostitutes to bed and rape her to prove that he is not homosexual, he leaves the despondent girl with a small icon, one of the first indications in the movie that Nikolai is not what he seems.
Meanwhile, Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital who discovered Tatiana's diary, has it translated by her uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski). Stepan is an ex-KGB man and a heavy drinker, but he seeks to protect his niece by advising her to stay away from Nikolai and his "Family". Anna, however, finds herself strangely attracted to Nikolai, who maintains that he is a simple driver for the Family and protects her from Semyon and Kirill. Nikolai is eventually promoted to the ranks of a senior zakon (thief in law) by a conclave of crime bosses. The ceremony in which Nikolai is inducted into the underworld order, showing off his fresh tattoos, and denouncing his father as a worthless "suka" (bitch) that worked as a functionary for the Soviet government, is vivid (anyone who has ever seen Russian gangster movies like Brigada, Brat, and Bumer will find this to be a very familiar dirty word).
In order to protect his son from the Chechens taking revenge for his unauthorized hit, Semyon sets Nikolai up for assassination, by making the Chechen gang think that Nikolai is Kirill. Nikolai fights off his would-be assassins in a brutal knife fight. After this bloody attack, while Nikolai is recovering in the hospital, Anna learns that he is in fact, a deep cover agent for Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), and has been cooperating with Britain's Scotland Yard for years to infilitrate and dismantle Russian criminal groups in the UK. At the end, Tatiana's baby is saved from an unstable Kiril, who cannot bring himself to kill the child in order to spare his father prison time. Semyon is convicted of child rape using the diary and his child's DNA as evidence. Nikolai takes over the gang, and the final scenes leave little doubt that he has the blessings of both British and Russian intelligence for his shrewd power play.
Russia Today TV's take: bad Russians are back in vogue in the West. You can read more about the recent and Cold War history of Russian bad guys in Western pop culture here. One of the actors from Eastern Promises tells Russia Today that he dislikes the popular stereotypes of Russians as criminals in the West
A Brief History of the Real Russian Mafia
In real life, suka is a term that originated in Stalin's gulags, and described individuals that accepted Stalin's duplicitous offer of early release in return for military service during the Great Patriotic War. The Red Army exploited these sukas in the so-called "punishment battalions" that were thrown at German panzer divisions during the desperate months of 1941-1942. After many ex-cons distinguished themselves in combat, Stalin sent them back to the gulags, where as favorites of the prison guards they were hated by their former comrades from Russia's criminal underworld. Thus, the so called Bitch Wars began in earnest shortly after the Great Patriotic War, with Soviet criminals killing eachother off in large numbers, while political prisoners incarcerated with them just tried to survive.
After these bloody events, the old code among Russian thieves of refusing to cooperate with the authorities was largely killed off. Just as the CIA subcontracted the Italian mafia in failed bids to assassinate Castro in the early 60s, KGB officers used Russia's own criminal class for "wet" assassination operations abroad during the Cold War. While junior officers like Vladimir Putin toiled away as the Sword and Shield of the Party in places like East Germany and Angola, reporting on "anti-Soviet imperialist" activities, their well-connected superiors were importing German Blauplunkt appliances and Sony televisions into the USSR on behalf of the Soviet elite.
Just as during the Vietnam War, when high grade heroin began to appear on the streets of American cities (an epidemic depicted in director Ridley Scott's crime epic American Gangster), the Soviet campaign Afghan War was proceeded by a mushrooming epidemic of heroin addiction in Russia during the late Seventies, with much of the opium coming Afghanistan through Soviet Central Asia. Did that make the Soviet Red Army, which has been depicted as a band of vicious cartoon characters in American films like Charlie Wilson's War and Red Dawn, a group of "premature drug warriors"? Probably not. But today the Taliban still use these same Central Asian smuggling routes to fund their insurgency against NATO and the Pakistani government, while the American military uses supply bases built by the Soviets for the Afghan war to sustain its operations in Afghanistan.
As for the so-called Komsomol capitalists, the young upstarts like Boris Berezovsky, they routinely employed mob protection in the early Nineties, when there were very few people one could trust and ex-KGB men like Andrei Lugovoy were offering their services as bodyguards. And bodyguards were absolutely necessary. During the 1990s, business competition that in the West that would have been settled through lawsuits and leveraged buyouts was carried out with bullets and bombs. According to the late Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov's article "Godfather of the Kremlin", by the mid-90s Moscow had one of the highest murder rates in the world, with an average of 30,000 unsolved killings a year, plus many disappearances.
By the time Vladimir Putin came into office in 1999, most of the real Russian bratvas had either been killed, exiled, or laundered their ill-gotten gains into legitimate biznis activities, sometimes earning them de-facto amnesty from the authorities in exchange for their cooperation. Today, while there is still a powerful criminal underworld among nearly every nationality of the former USSR, Russia's real mafia now consists largely of corrupt officials lamented in one his recent speeches!) selling seats in the Russian parliament.
For deglamorizing the Russian mob, and for exposing the ongoing practice of trafficking in women from the former USSR, Eastern Promises is well worth seeing. However, few viewers will be able to see past its gore to a well-constructed plot. Without some key cuts, the director's original version might not have earned its "R" rating.