‘Eastern Promises’ doesn’t keep its word

There are no vows or proclamations in “Eastern Promises” that can be kept. Director David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence,” “Crash”) presents yet another odd storyline with plenty of moments that leave the audience questioning why they had to see them.

Just like Cronenberg’s first pairing with Viggo Mortensen (“A History of Violence,” “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) in “A History of Violence,” the film opens up with a scene and characters that are unrelated to the main character at first glance. And just like the previous film, the already confused audience is immediately confronted with excessive violence.

In an era when directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 1”) can become famous and popular for excessive violence and brutality, it’s interesting to see directors like Cronenberg fail to do the same. Where Tarantino succeeds, Cronenberg falls flat every time.

Perhaps this is because Tarantino uses excessive violence as comedy, choreography, or to make a rather emphatic point, while Cronenberg tries to present the same thing as beautiful art. But it just doesn’t work. Seeing a close-up of a corpse’s fingers getting cut off with pliers after the plot point has been well established is both unnecessary and grotesque.

And yet director Guillermo del Toro was able to make the excessive violence in his artsy film “Pan’s Labyrinth” work – maybe not as art, but as a vital part of that movie’s plot. Yet for some reason, Cronenberg’s violence persists in its pointlessness.

And it’s not just the violence, either. Cronenberg’s sex scenes are explicit and uncomfortable in their length and subject matter. In fact, if one were to view “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” back to back, it would be easy to assume that Cronenberg has an obsession with violent sex as a kink, especially where the violence is perpetrated against the women. And that’s not even addressing his film “Crash” that was released in the late nineties starring James Spader (“Boston Legal,” “Stargate”).

Cronenberg makes disturbingly odd choices repeatedly. But before the full blame is laid at his doorstep, a review of the script is necessary as well.

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Scriptwriter Steven Knight is most recently well known for his work on the independently released “Amazing Grace,” starring Ioan Gruffudd (“Fantastic Four,” “King Arthur”). That film was well-written and completely different in every way from this one.

By the end of this film, the audience is left uncertain as to whom the main character was, what the movie was about, or even what the ending really was, as there is no defined resolution. One has to wonder where the scriptwriter’s original work left off and someone else’s doctoring took over, because the film seemed so promising when it started.

It had intriguing characters that were well-rounded, they had interesting chemistry with each other (perhaps due to the great acting all around) and there seemed to be an interesting plot of some sort. But two-thirds of the way through the film, the writing fell down a giant plot hole that made no sense. As a result, the scenes that followed to the end of the film felt both forced and fake.

This in turn makes the movie hard to describe, as it doesn’t easily fit into any definable genre. It’s not really a mobster movie, though it certainly delves into the Russian mafia in London. It’s not really a romance, though it plays with the chemistry between Mortensen and Naomi Watts (“The Painted Veil,” “King Kong”). And it’s not really a mystery or a drama either, though there are elements of each.

In the end, the film is a conglomeration of unequal and odd parts that feels like a poorly constructed Frankenstein of a film. It doesn’t do what it was created to do (if that intention was ever clear), and it doesn’t fit in anywhere. This one should have stayed buried.