David Cronenberg planned to make a sequel to Eastern Promises, but Focus Films vetoed it abruptly. I read an article about this and got spoiled for the original film in the process. Funnily enough, that was the impetus for my decision to watch it (the words ‘Viggo Mortensen naked knife fight’ somehow lacked that special allure), and now I’m angry that the sequel isn’t happening.
Knowing the big twists in EP wasn’t too much of a setback. Sure, not knowing would have kept Nikolai (Mortensen) more mysterious. However, he’s left mysterious at the end of the film, and understanding him requires reading between the lines and using guesswork. The film is also casual about its reveals; the twists don’t particularly shock.
Mortensen is perhaps a limited actor who nonetheless has a certain je ne sais quoi. He’s highly enjoyable in EP and it’s entirely a credit to him and the lingering ambiguity of his character that I would want to see him play Nikolai again. He can give an empty soul-ed stare as well as he can give asymmetrical blinks and false smiles. He’s a powerful physical presence whether wearing suits and sunglasses or nothing but tattoos.
Let’s talk about that knife fight. It’s the premier physical confrontation in the film, and a good deal of its intensity comes from the fact that Nikolai is naked. There’s no wussy Hollywood hide-Mr-Willy-at-all-costs camera positioning, and it’s not so shaky that you can’t see what’s happening. It’s two guys who are fully clothed trying to kill one who is not. Nikolai is vulnerable; every stab and blow that he receives is significant and his position is always desperate. The fact that his survival is hard won doesn’t make him any less dangerous.
The scene even looks like it must have been painful to film, with Mortensen getting tossed around without padding (perhaps the floor was made softer than it appears). He seems to be doing it all himself; I think you’d have to watch the scene very closely to pick it up if he’s not. It’s such an impressively raw and brutal fight that it’s worth seeing EP for, even if you’re not that lecturer of mine who swooned over Viggo at every opportunity and was rather keen on this film.
What about the rest of EP? It’s wilfully low-key and some of its meanings are so subtle that they can arguably go either way. And some of it is just slight. Despite featuring prominently at the film’s beginning, Naomi Watts gets little to do; her character, and her family, are pushed aside surprisingly easily partway through so that Nikolai becomes the focus. Mortensen is so good here, however, that there’s little need to complain.