Eastern Promises," a gangland story by director David Cronenberg, is an admirably untypical thriller, a survey of Russian organized crime operating in London. It is also strangely typical considering the director used to specialize in psychological horror movies. Either way, "Eastern Promises" just isn't horror-ful enough. Like "A History of Violence" before it, "Promises" is a mainstream picture with only a whiff of the creepy psychology that rules the director's earlier, boundary-pushing work. Why do you care? Well, it isn't going to startle anyone, a fan of the director or not.
A prominent critic once observed that Cronenberg's obsession is with the physical, and if that means gore, then there is an undeniable continuity in "Promises." Opportunity abounds for a top Russian crime family in London that includes the viciously calculating boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his sadistic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and their muscle, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, who also starred in "A History of Violence"), who are all trying to quiet an inquisitive nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) who knows too much. As in most of Cronenberg's movies, the gore isn't necessarily realistic, just in your face. Cronenberg holds his camera on slit throats as long as propriety allows, give or take a gurgle or two, and allows no pesky score to get in the way when he wants to snap a radius or ulna, which pip and pop in distinct tones, as if the human body were a musical instrument just waiting to be played correctly.
In his movies before "Violence," Cronenberg often toyed with reality. His gross-outs had more to do with the transformation of his characters' minds than their bodies, as we couldn't always be sure what was real and what was imagined. You could argue that this is an obsession with the psychological rather than the physical, but not for "Promises." There's plenty of violence, but its intentions are more obvious, like demonstrating the casual depravity of Nikolai as he snips off the fingertips of a dead rival before dumping the body.
The narrator is a young girl who got caught up with this bunch and was then discarded. Her piteous story of being trafficked and abused is the strongest thread and makes you regret admiring Tony Soprano. And yet the movie still can't help admiring it all, giving a taxonomy of Russian criminals (like the vory v zakone [thieves-in-law]) who, like the mythical Italian-American Cosa Nostra, operate outside the law with their own rules. There is even a swelling Eastern European dirge when Nikolai gets his "stars," and this isn't the only time we are lost in awe of tattoos and accents.
Cronenberg is also still playing games with personality, and his intentions remain murky. Like the fun but wacky end of "Violence," when Mortensen's small-town restaurateur unexpectedly turned into Jean-Claude Van Damme, we are invited to guess again at who the main character really is (only he's inverted this time -- not a violent man trying to live peaceably, but a peaceful man struggling to live violently). Mortensen is great as a gold-medal intimidator, a tiger in the posture of James Dean. His gravelly Russian street slang is Don Corleone's rasp weathered by years in a Siberian prison. His smile is like a clenched fist. The buildup is sublime, and we expect Nikolai to rip some people's heads off. But then, unexpectedly, it never happens.
"Promises" takes pains to build up the ferocity of this underworld, but you've never seen such menacing mobsters given less to do. One of the most dangerous men is brought down not by a gut or head wound, but by the equivalent of a paternity suit. True, they got Al Capone with tax evasion, but it's a letdown to create a heart-pounding villain and then vanquish him with a blood test. Cronenberg, a very smart guy, must know this, but we might have to wait for the DVD extras for him to explain it. The menace in "Eastern Promises" is a lot like the old Soviet Union, that cruel police state that bred the vorovskoy mir, or thieves' world a scary development that suddenly dies without a fight in the end. (R) 100 min. S