Many people have seemed to avoid Eastern Promises, the follow-up film from director David Cronenberg after his excellent A History of Violence. I think that the predominant opinion might be that since this isn't really a sequel per se, it shouldn't be as interesting or worthwhile, however I think that's unfair to judge this film based on past perceptions. In some cases Eastern Promises is equal and sometimes superior to its brethren, as the esteemed Bill Gibron effectively discusses in his standard definition review of the title.
Written by Steven Knight (Amazing Grace), the events that follow in the film, which is set in London, seems to be hinged on the opening sequences, as a teenaged Russian girl staggers into a pharmacy bleeding and asks for help, before passing out on the floor. She is rushed to the hospital, where Anna (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive) manages to successfully deliver the baby, but the mother dies in the process. Among her belongings is a diary that ties her into a group of Russians that might be conducting criminal business in London virtually undetected from law enforcement authorities. She asks a kind old Russian gentlemen who owns a Russian restaurant in town to translate the diary for her, so she can try to place the girl with her mother's family. As it turns out, the translator Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, The Game) might have more to do with the girl's fate than anyone expects, so he enlists the help of his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, Ocean's Twelve) and driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence) to claim the diary and the baby at whatever possible cost.
Cronenberg manages to immerse you rather effectively into the environment of what the Russians do and how they do it. Watts' character is essential to the story, in so much as she's a perfect conduit for the viewer. She becomes charmed by what Semyon does, even as we find out more and more that he's a cold-blooded bastard before she does. Kirill is the reckless son and Nikolai the stoic driver, but when Semyon starts to look to Nikolai as the successor to the business, Kirill bristles at the idea. Watch how the dynamic between him and Nikolai evolves through the film; they are buddies who drink the same booze and screw the same types of women, and as Nikolai rises to a more prominent role within the family, Kirill still tries to impose some sort of will over Nikolai, but the impositions are weak and amateurish, and both of them know it. It's a fascinating thing to watch in the film.
As for Mortensen, the person who came out with the most raves for the film, it's hard to really say something good about him that hasn't been said before. But I think that what he does exceptionally well is that he manages to cloak himself in secrecy without revealing his hand to Anna, Semyon and, for that matter, the viewer. You don't know what his motivations are until very late in the feature. Before that, one can only assume the cloak he possesses is one of a quietly badass dude who puts cigarettes out on his tongue and cuts up frozen bodies to dump in the Thames. While I think I liked his role in History of Violence more, his immersion into Nikolai's world is almost as impressive, and was well worth the praise it received.
The 1.85:1 widescreen presentation of Eastern Promises uses the VC-1 codec, and appears to be the same transfer for the HD DVD release. Not having that disc anymore I couldn't say definitively, but the film looked good then, and looks good now. I remember that when I first saw it, I was anticipating a lot of drab colors in the palette, but the film has its fair share of vivid reds, in various shades, and they're all reproduced accurately without any bleeding whatsoever. The blues in the crowd's Chelsea jerseys when they go to the match pop pretty well too, and as far as blacks go, they look excellent, really deep and strike a fine contrast throughout the film. There was one sequence in the restaurant where the camera sweeps over the food on the table and there's some jagged motion as the camera moves, but it's a minor flaw. All in all Eastern Promises is a great looking film.
The HD DVD had a TrueHD track, and the Blu-ray has a DTS HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 surround track. Not having the disc in the red case, I couldn't really do any comparisons to speak of, but this soundtrack certainly puts in the work when it has to. The film itself is dialogue driven, and the accents are so deep that sometimes use of the subtitles might be in order, but that's no fault of the soundtrack. There were some clever uses of directional effects (when Kirill asks Nikolai to come over to him while Nikolai was working on Anna's motorcycle being one that comes to mind), and sound effects were crisp and clean, like during the bath house fight. Subwoofer engagement was pretty non-existent and overall, the film sounds excellent.
The same stuff as the HD DVD, with a couple of small additions. Things start with "Secrets and Stories" (10:32), which examines how Cronenberg came to the project, and Knight's ideas for writing it in the first place. Cronenberg discusses his thoughts on the stars, and then everyone shares their thoughts in general on the Russian mob in London. There's some on-set footage mixed in here and there, but the piece is way too short in my opinion. "Marked for Life" (6:42) examines the significance of the tattoos, and the meaning for the mobsters, while Mortensen provides his own perspective, and the making of the ink is included. Next is "2 Guys Walk Into a Bath House" (1:55) and it looks at Cronenberg's intent for the fight scene and how it all came together. Finally, "Watts on Wheels" (0:55) looks at Watts' trepidation for riding motorcycles.
Eastern Promises is less a movie about the Russian mafia and more about the people who occupy it. There's some trademark Cronenberg violence, but it's limited and very effective; this is more about seeing how the people in this organization lead their lives. The technical qualities are on par, maybe slightly higher than its HD DVD older brother, so unless the DTS HD soundtrack is that important to you, you might want to hang onto it. For the new buyer, I'd say go into this puppy without hesitation.