Once in a while I understand what good actors bring to a movie. It’s usually mediocrity that sounds it out. When a good actor is given a script that’s nothing much and a group of co-stars who are either miscast or woefully inadequate, it’s as if adversity acts as a lightning rod; think of Antony Hopkins in Meet Joe Black or Marlon Brando in anything after 1972. Johnny Depp is a master of turning cinematic lead into acting gold. Now Viggo Mortensen must be added to these somewhat dubiously-honoured ranks. Viggo’s new movie, Eastern Promises, is mediocre to the bone, but his performance, as a Russian mobster, is among the best acting of the year.
Eastern Promises tells a story straight out of Charles Dickens: A pregnant Russian girl dies giving birth in a London hospital. She leaves behind a diary. Kindly nurse Naomi Watts finds a business card tucked inside the diary and decides to track down any family the dead Russian girl might have left behind. Traipsing into danger without much thought for own personal safety, Watts finds the restaurant listed on the business card and with it… the Russian Mafia. The remainder of the movie finds Watts appealing to the conscience of the same gangsters who raped and murdered a 14-year-old, and Viggo Mortensen politely trying to stop Watts from getting killed.
Ninety per cent of this movie is crap. So why give it a pass? The script is hackneyed, the casting spotty (Vincent Cassel – possibly the most French-looking French actor who ever lived – plays a Russian gangster); David Cronenberg’s direction (save the sauna fight) is blandly pedestrian. The movie was co-funded by BBC Films and it certainly sticks by the BBC Films credo: make nothing anyone would want to watch. But then there’s Viggo. And he really is that good. He’s so good in fact that I think I need to spend another paragraph on what’s bad just so you can appreciate how good his acting is.
Naomi Watts looks like she’s waiting for the lights to change for most of this movie, and small wonder – her character sucks. Anyone who’s ever known a nurse knows that –short of Russian mobsters – there’s scarcely a more hardened, been-there, unshockable breed in Christendom than the average Casualty nurse. And yet here’s Watts, in 2007, playing the voice of moral outrage and acting shocked that the Russian Mafia are – golly! – bad people. It’s not that the movie doesn’t earn the right to moral outrage, but the mouthpiece we get seems… naïve. Similarly Vincent Cassel – not only is he French as hors d’œuvre, his character as-written doesn’t make sense either. Cassel plays the son of the chief Russian mobster. We know he’s meant to be a buffoon because he shows up drunk in every scene. But there’s nothing else to him. He cackles, he gurns, he does his Moscow-a la Amelie accent, but he’s never anything more than the oblivious idiot who sets the plot in motion.
Viggo Mortensen enters the movie like a shark’s fin – black and sleek and portentous of something deadly. He looks authentic. Something about his face speaks of experience in street fights. Even before we see his tattoos, we’ve seen where they come from. He looks at Watts and it’s a shark looking at a minnow. When he looks at anyone all you see is how little they’ve seen of the world in contrast to him. The fast-becoming-infamous fight scene in a sauna – where Viggo takes on two hoods naked – is only sold to us off the back of Mortensen’s performance. Where other actors play Russian by way of vodka and vocal inflections, Viggo plays Russian as a state of mind, that great mix of boisterousness and stoicism that defines Russian men. It’s there in the scene where he puts a cigarette out on his tongue: playful, mad, toughened, un-American.
Can good acting save a mediocre movie? No – because a movie is never more or less than the sum of its parts. Eastern Promises doesn’t have the script it needs to be the Goodfellas of the Russian Mafia. There are too many short cuts taken, too many characters who aren’t worth our time. When Viggo is on screen, we’re watching a movie about loyalty and barbarism. He cuts to the heart of a man of violence. But the movie doesn’t deserve him. This is a movie with a Message and a happy ending. We need to be knee-deep in blood and instead we’re plucking babies from the Thames. Viggo’s shark is left at sea.