"Eastern Promises" Blu-ray Review
October 03, 2008 by Zach Demeter
After a successful run on A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen and director David Cronenberg reunite for Eastern Promises, a film about the Russian mob and their involvement in everything from goods importing to the mistreatment of Ukrainian girls. The film resonated with critics and became somewhat of a sleeper hit in theaters for 2007—it silently moved through US theaters, garnering fewer than eighteen million and making more than half of its total revenue overseas. While the film may not have had a strong theatrical presence, I’ve no doubt many will come to discover this film on DVD—as it should be for this truly a great film.
When an unidentified pregnant Ukruanian teenager comes in hemorrhaging, the doctors are only able to save her baby due to the excessive bleeding. With her death resonating with midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), Anna attempts to find her family to give the baby to—only to uncover secrets that the Russian mob wants kept covered. Though Anna at first trusts her new friends that she found via the woman’s diary, she quickly learns that they are anything but friendly—with their intimidating manner and the disturbing driver known as Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who repeatedly confuses Anna with his mixture of ruthlessness and kindness. In the end it’s clear that nothing is what it appears to be within the Russian mob and it’s more than just Nikolai shaking things up.
Granted my description of the film is much more Hollywood sounding than it should; the film is really quite a subdued and laid back affair, with only a small burst of real violence at the end. I basically just described Mortensen and Cronenberg’s last outing, A History of Violence, which I admittedly didn’t enjoy in the least. With that film the trailers set the film up to be more than ended up being and when the “twist” at the end of it came, you saw it coming and were awaiting it for the entire film. In the case of Eastern Promises the trailers showed very little (from what I recall, anyway) and left most of the story up to the viewer to discover.
On the outside, Eastern Promises looks to be another simple mob boss story and while you could still sum it up as such, there are several layers to the film, from the character of Anna’s standpoint, from the life of the Russian mob itself and of course from Nikolai. The film has such a variety of stories going through it that it could be taken as a story about the Russian mob to a story about a young girl whose youth and innocence was ripped from her and finally a story about a woman who gains a child after losing her own. It’s a really well written story that is engaging from start to finish and at no point did I want to avert my eyes from the screen.
Well there were a few moments when I could’ve averted, purely because I didn’t want to catch multiple eyefuls of Mortensen’s nether regions during the frantic and bloody steamroom brawl between Nikolai and men sent to kill him. It’s a brutal scene and I can honestly say seeing a naked man being beaten and trying to hold is own is much different from seeing the usual brawls. It’s not so much the nude shots as it is the ruthlessness of it all—there’s nothing to block the punches to the gut or the knives across the back—and it’s much more difficult to watch.
The characters in the film were really what kept my interest going in it. Nikolai’s mysteriousness and that hint of something that made you know that there was something else behind the scenes going on with his character. Also keeping a strong presence on screen was Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and Kirill (Vincent Cassel), both of who had a strong impact on the characters of the film in more ways than one. Also adding to everyone’s performance was the constant switching between Russian and English throughout—I actually wondered while watching the film if Mortensen was actually Russian because he did everything in the film so flawlessly.
Overall Eastern Promises is a superb film and easily one of the films in all of 2007 that I enjoyed the most. It’s not a film for the faint of heart due to the subject matter, but it is really just a great film throughout, from start to finish. Odd for me to say considering I didn’t enjoy A History of Violence (although now I’m starting to get the desire to rewatch it now that I know what to expect), but Eastern Promises is simply remarkable. Highly Recommended.
Despite the films critical success, the Blu-ray treatment seems to reflect its domestic a box office intake, coming in nearly bare bones. In a standard Blu-ray case, the title comes with an insert advertising the Blu-ray format as well as disc art that mimics the cover. Menus follow the usual Universal blade system, which allows for nice and easy navigation.
As impressive as the DVD transfer was, the 1080p 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer, of course, trumps it just by a bit more. The detail on the image is fantastic, especially with the sequences that show copious amounts of human flesh as well as the night sequences. The way the light hits the wet streets allows the film to jump off the screen and offers a lot of depth. Of course the film also has a bit of grain tossed in, but that’s normal and it’s well defined and not smeared in the least. The video is backed up by a fantastic English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that pumps in the sound through all the channels. The bathhouse scene in particular gets a good surround work out, as you get to hear the various punches and kicks travel around the room just as the men do. Overall a fantastic audio and video mix, that is complemented by optional Spanish and French DTS 5.1 tracks, as well as English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.
While I would love to move onto some in-depth documentaries or a commentary with Mortensen and Cronenberg, we’ll unfortunately have to settle for four short featurettes that don’t even total twenty minutes. The first is “Secrets and Stories” (10:30), a short of quick making-of that goes over Cronenberg’s thoughts on the film (very briefly) as well as mixing in some pre-shoot prep from the cast. “Marked for Life” (6:41) recounts the history behind the Russian tattoos that we see all over Nikolai and Kirill’s bodies and is a nice little extra. Mortensen recounts an encounter he had in a bar with a few men who saw him with the tattoos on during the shooting of Eastern Promises, which led to some awkward silence among them. I got a bit more excited for the next two extras as they weren’t on the original DVD release, but once I saw their run times I became immediately disappointed. "Two Guys Walk into a Bath House" (1:55) briefly talks about the construction of the bath house sequence (both the set and the way it was shot), while "Watts on Wheels" (0:56) has Naomi Watts talking about her slippery experience on her motorcycle in the film.
While the film is wonderful, the Blu-ray is certainly one of the weakest I’ve seen accompany a film of this quality in a long time. Still, even with the Blu-ray’s weak elements, the film alone is worth owning and for that reason alone this Blu-ray comes Recommended.
Eastern Promises arrives on Blu-ray on October 14th.