Having spent 30 years as one of the most left-field directors, Canadian David Cronenberg enhanced his maverick status even further by moving towards the mainstream with his 2005 film 'A History of Violence'. A modern western which had a great first half before letting itself down with an over-the-top finale, the film received multiple awards and prompted much speculation as to what Cronenberg would do next.
But rather than return to the corporeal stories that have dominated his work, Cronenberg has reunited with 'A History of Violence' star Viggo Mortensen for 'Eastern Promises', a thriller about the Russian mafia in London.
When a 14-year-old Russian girl dies giving birth in a London hospital, midwife and second generation Russian Anna Khitrova (Watts) tries to track down the girl's relations before the baby is put up for adoption. With only the girl's diary as a lead, the trail leads to a Russian restaurant owned by the elderly Semyon (Mueller Stahl).
Initially playing the charming old gentleman to perfection, Semyon becomes a far more ominous presence when he discovers the dead girl had a diary. And as Anna's uncle (Skolimowski) translates the girl's wretched life, she is put in increasing danger, with Semyon's unhinged son Kirill (Cassel) and brooding enforcer Nikolai (Mortensen) never too far away.
Working off a script by 'Dirty Pretty Things' writer Steven Knight, Cronenberg has made a film which hooks you from the off and, like Knight's previous work, goes deep into a 'world within a city' which people know nothing about. 'Eastern Promises' is, however, very bloody - the seat-squirming violence (throat slashings, eye knifings) means that you may need to have a think before handing over your money.
In this world there is no mercy, only business, and some of the blackest souls around. Throwing herself amongst them is Watts' angelic midwife, who senses there might be something more to Mortensen's Nikolai, a man who can dismember a body with clinical skill and is menacing without ever having to try too hard.
But there are problems: 'Eastern Promises' could've been a more memorable mob movie. Some of the accents are straight from Central Casting and the decision to have the gangster characters speaking Russian in some scenes and English when they're alone in others is plain silly. There was also the potential to develop some of the relationships even further while the ending is too fast for the pacing which preceded it.
Even so, you'll find yourself as much a fascinated and fearful explorer as Anna - and wondering afterwards what could be happening around the corner from you. Just remember about the violence before you go.