Saturday, September 6, 2008

#66 Saturday Matinee--"Eastern Promises"

Directed by David Cronenberg (2007)--courtesy of Netflix. Now, I had to be reminded when we watched his "History of Violence" (2005) that this was the guy who directed the great remake of the great "The Fly" (1958--"Help me! Help me!") with Jeff Goldbloom and Geena Davis some 20 years before HOV. What happened in between? Well, yeah, I guess he made some popular B-movie horror flicks (I think I saw '"Scanners") and had a "serious" failure with "M Butterfly." It appears, though, that only the last two movies have brought him back to form. But, unfortunately, they're one and the same movie. OK, not quite, but close. Consider: both are drenched in bloody murder and mayhem, of course; there's the Mafia (even more sinisterly clavern-like here by being and speaking-with-subtitles Russian in the London setting); there are the innocent family-people involuntarily entangled; and, reductio ad absurdum, we've got the SAME LEADING MAN--Viggo Mortensen (check-out the first syllable of his last name), giving an outstanding performance in both pictures, and nominated for an AA best actor for his work in EP. (First noticed him ten years ago in yet another remake, "Perfect Murder," an underrated redo--with Gwynneth Paltrow and the estimable and also-underrated Michael Douglas and lots of new twists--of Hitchcock's 1954 classic "Dial M for Murder" which I saw at the old Avalon Theater in Chicago in its original 3-D release, believe it or not, glasses and all. Viggo efflouresced as the supporting-role victim, this time, in the 1998 version.) And, bowing to the truth of the old cliche': his performance alone, in each case, is worth the ticket-price.

Anyway, resorting to my old academic/critical scale-of-value, I hereby give the higher grade of "B-" to HOV, and only a "C+ish" one to EP, if only because of that inevitable deja vue of the first movie interfering with the second (assuming you've already seen or heard about HOV)...and again: it gets the average-plus grade because I've always been a "hard grader/but fair," as my students used to say, and because, ultimately, unlike HOV, this movie ends with the love story unnecessarily and unsatisfyingly UNresolved. Yes, for all the his outrageous bloody action, Cronenberg gets my vote for anchoring both movies with audience-identifiable, romantic underplots. Viggo plays the good-guy/bad-guy "anti-hero" role in both, but there's a difference: in HOV his character was an actual bad guy before the movie begins, and he has to work through this inconvenient fact (with soul-searching and, yes, unbelievable violence) to get himself and wife and family back on track. Love Story resolved. But in EP, Viggo's bad-guy is a FAKE. Of course we suspected that the good-guy lurked under his murderous persona...but an unorganic, squeaky-clean one?! (No wonder Cronenberg begged the critics not to give away the ending, I hear.) He's an UNDERCOVER underworld bad-guy, finally becoming a "made man" by the Russian Vory V Zakone near the end of the story-arc. (Note: no problem with homages to Coppola and Scorsese here, but do I hear too many echoes of Mike Newell's "Donnie Brasco" in this movie?)

And apparently the script wants him to remain the quasi-KGB operative at movie's-end, for no good reason that I can see, since Viggo and Naomi Watts have obviously fallen in love...script-wise. Would Nickolai-the-spy really want to stay "in the cold" what with the now ready-made semi-Russian family of Anna and the formerly plot-crucial baby cavorting in the wings? I don't think it works. (Maybe I take too idealistically the supervenient--screw-the-details-- power of love.) However, based on the final shot, a shadow-saddened fade-out of the lone Nickolai, surely Cronenberg wants us to believe that his protagonist has made the WRONG choice ...for what that's worth. No fun ...sorry. EP is eminently watchable, though, if only for the "full-monty" fight-scene. Wait a minute this really a chick-movie?

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