Despite the warnings of her mother and uncle, London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts, slightly underused) digs into a powerful Eastern European organized crime operation. Her goal: to find someone to claim an orphaned baby, whose prostitute mother, Anna believes, was raped by one of the leaders (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Anna's closest ally is the organization's mysterious and soft-spoken driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who sometimes does much more than drive.
Big question: Can director David Cronenberg tap into the crime world as well as he did with his last film, 2005's excellent "A History of Violence"?
Catch it: Mortensen is a vastly underrated actor for his level of commitment and immersion, instilling delicate complexity into Nikolai even as he puts cigarettes out on his tongue and engages in a spectacularly orchestrated naked knife fight. Cronenberg, meanwhile, continues to prove himself a master of capturing dangerous people as they live, breathe and edge closer to death.
Skip it: If you believe your body is a temple. Members of the gang all have multiple tattoos that "tell their life story," and most them don't have a happy ending!
Bottom line: In "Eastern Promises," significant tension keeps a minimal plot on ice, with changes that are small but precise, like a blade that grazes your throat moments after it appears. It's an old-fashioned story about the cold, disloyal hand of old-school organized crime, with the film's grasp on that merciless world only a few notches below "The Departed."
Bonus: Imagine Nikolai's motivation to keep in shape when he finds out that the brotherhood enjoys holding business meetings in a steam room! Towel preferred.
Matt Pais is the metromix movies producer.
Directed by David Cronenberg; screenplay by Steve Knight; photographed by Peter Suschitzky; music by Howard Shore; edited by Ronald Sanders; production design by Carol Spier; produced by Paul Webster and Robert Lantos. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language, and nudity).
Nikolai - Viggo Mortensen
Anna - Naomi Watts
Kirill - Vincent Cassel
Semyon - Armin Mueller-Stahl
Helen - Sinead Cusack
Stepan - Jerzy Skolimowski