"EASTERN PROMISES" is a violent, sentimental, and efficient Russian immigrant mob movie with an overpowering star performance from Viggo Mortensen as Hollywood's favorite kind of hero, the dangerous man with a heart of gold. He plays the new chauffeur of a London-based Russian mafia family trafficking in sex slaves from the Old Country.
Veteran art house goremeister David Cronenberg considerately telegraphs each grotesque throat-slitting far enough in advance that I could close my eyes until it was over, except for one naked knife fight in a Turkish bath that must have gone on even longer than the similar scene in "Borat."
Cronenberg's most popular film with the public was 1986's "The Fly," with Jeff Goldblum as a mad scientist sprouting bristly black fur due to an experiment gone terribly wrong. In contrast, critics adored Cronenberg's 2005 action movie with the pretentious title, "A History of Violence." Cronenberg cast as the small-town nice guy who isn't whom he seems the half-Danish Mortensen, along with the uber-WASP William Hurt (a stepgrandson of Henry and Clare Booth Luce) as his Philadelphia mafioso brother who pulls him back in. (Exactly which Philly crime family was left vague: perhaps the notorious Anglo-Scandinavian Main Line Mob?)
The implausible casting was a nudge to rapturous critics to over-interpret this dopey little shoot-'em-up not as a normal gangster flick but as a profound anti-Bush allegory about the unspeakable violence that underlies American history etc. etc.
Unfortunately, "A History of Violence" seemed perpetually a bit off, as if Cronenberg had never been to a small town. I saw it at a $3 theater and the low-budget Saturday night crowd gave it the raspberry, hooting at its phony twists.
Cronenberg's latest crime-family thriller collaboration with Mortensen, "Eastern Promises," is a sizable improvement. It might be almost as preposterous as "A History of Violence," but its less familiar setting amidst Russians in London makes it easier to enjoy than Cronenberg's clankingly inept vision of Middle America.
"Eastern Promises" raises politically incorrect questions about why we would want so many newcomers that immigrant mafias become inevitable. Cronenberg explained his opposition to immigrants failing to assimilate to the New York Times: "At its worst, it's you come and you live there, but you live in a little ghetto of your own culture that you brought with you. …