Eastern Promises (2007) – A Movie Review

This is a movie about some Russian mobsters in London.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Anna Khitrova is a nurse in the maternity ward of a London hospital.  One day a pregnant underage girl Tatiana shows up hemorrhaging and in cardiac distress.  We’re shown the needle marks on her arms.  She’s rushed into surgery and the baby is saved but the mother dies.  Anna finds a diary written in Russian in Tatiana’s possessions.  She asks her uncle Stepan to translate the diary but after looking through it he tells Anna not to get involved.

But Anna wants the baby to go back to Tatiana’s family instead of into foster care.  She finds a card for a Russian restaurant in the diary and goes there to find out about Tatiana and to get the diary translated to find her family.  She meets the restaurant’s owner Semyon a courtly old man and his son Kirill and their “driver” Nikolai (played by Viggo Mortensen).  In reality Semyon is the head of the local Russian mafia family.  Semyon tells Anna he has never heard of Tatiana but agrees to translate the diary for her.

Meanwhile we see what Kirill and Nikolai are up to.  Kirill has ordered a hit on another Russian mobster and Nikolai helps to “process” the body by removing the teeth and cutting off the fingers in a scene that tells you how cold blooded he can act.  They dump the body in the Thames but all this was done behind Semyon’s back.  Kirill is a loose cannon who acts out of emotion.  The murdered gangster has an organization that will be looking for revenge.

Semyon reads the diary and realizes that it implicates Kirill and himself in statutory rape and much more.  He orders Nikolai to murder Anna’s uncle because of his knowledge of the diary’s contents.  When Semyon’s contacts tell him that a Chechen hit squad is hunting for Kirill but does not know what he looks like he hatches a plan.  He decides to elevate Nikolai to a “made man,” so to speak, in the organization.  He is given the “star” tattoos on his shoulders and knees.  And he is invited by one of the organization to a meeting at a bathhouse.  It’s a set up for a hit.  The two Chechens are told that Nikolai is Kirill and they attack him as he sits in a towel in the sauna.  After a harrowing battle in which he sustains numerous knife wounds he kills both hitmen.

At the hospital where he is recovering from his wounds Nikolai is visited secretly by a high-ranking Scotland Yard officer named Yuri.  We learn that Nikolai is an undercover FSB agent infiltrating the Russian mafia with the approval of the British government.  Nikolai insists that what must be done is arrest Semyon for the statutory rape of Tatiana based on DNA evidence of his paternity of her child.  This will allow Kirill to assume titular control of the family but leave Nikolai in actual control to do his work from the inside.  Anna finds out that Nikolai did not murder her missing uncle but sent him out of town (Scotland) to hide from Semyon.  She now believes that Nikolai is not part of the plot to hide Tatiana’s abuse.

But when the police demand a blood sample from Semyon, he figures out what’s going on and sends Kirill to the hospital where Tatiana’s baby is being held to kidnap her.  He intends to drown her in the river.  But Kirill is guilt ridden over the idea of murdering the child.  By the time he steels himself to commit the murder Nikolai and Anna arrive to talk him out of it and save the child.  Nikolai convinces Kirill that his father must be allowed to go to prison in order for the two of them to gain control of the business.  Kirill begs Nicholai to believe that he had nothing to do with the Chechen hit squad going after Nikolai and they are reconciled to this new partnership they are forming.

In the last scene Semyon is in prison and Tatiana’s baby has been adopted by Anna.  The last image is of Nikolai now dressed as a prosperous business man in the restaurant apparently wondering what has become of his life.

This is a brutal movie.  Scenes involving the degrading treatment of the prostitutes in Semyon’s bordello and the graphic violence is disturbing.  The depraved nature of Kirill and the various other “soldiers” is depressing to watch.  It’s hard to imagine that a government agent would go through all that Nicholai does even if it is the means by which a large criminal organization is destroyed.  The depravity and the suffering he goes through is mind altering.  Who can I recommend this movie to?  Well, not the easily offended.  Sexual content and violence are pretty extreme.  In addition, I’d say this movie is for people who go in for gangster movies.  If you fit into both those categories then this is actually a legitimate film.  The acting is mostly very good.  Viggo Mortensen does a superb job as the fake hitman.  And if action scenes are what you crave then the hit in the sauna is one for the record books.  It’s extremely harrowing and effective.  Hopefully I’ve spelled out what this movie is.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) – A Movie Review

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a crime drama that takes place in and around Boston.  Robert Mitchum is Eddie Coyle, a small-time member of an Irish gang who is about to be sentenced for a truck hijacking that he did for another gangster named Dillon who is played by Peter Boyle.  Because Eddie doesn’t want to do anymore time he agrees to act as an informant to ATF agent Dave Foley.  He informs on the gun runner Jackie Brown who has been providing Eddie with pistols for use by a bank robbing gang being run by Eddie’s friend Jimmy Scalise.

At the same time, we discover that Eddie’s associate Dillon is also providing information to Foley too.  Eventually Dillon provides information on Scalise’s operation and the gang gets busted.  When both Jackie Brown and Scalise both get taken down by ATF the head of the gang decides that Eddie is responsible for the leaks and sends his hitman to kill Eddie.  And ironically the hitman is Dillon.

The movie consists of the various crimes, the gun-running and the bank robberies along with Eddie’s and Dillon’s meetings with Dave Foley.  The movie’s strengths are the dialog and the portrayal of these characters.  Listening to them justify the various and contradictory actions they take rings true.  Even Eddie’s relationship with his wife and family demonstrates what a hopeless mess his life is.  And the ending where Dillon takes Eddie to a Bruins hockey game and gets him black out drunk before executing him in a car ride into the suburbs is completely believable and emblematic of the faithless fraternity that these men inhabit.

Living in New England I asked a friend of mine what he thought about the somewhat recent Boston mob movie, “The Departed.”  He said that the legitimate quintessential New England mob movie was the “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”  And I agree with him completely.  This movie feels about right as a representation of Boston corruption.  Whether it’s gangsters or crooked politicians this is what that world looks and feels like.  It’s petty and disloyal and penny-ante and very, very local.  There’s nothing grandiose and nothing heroic.  It’s gritty and believable.

If you like crime movies that reek of small-timer sweat, this is it.

Southern Dust – by Caspar Vega – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

Caspar Vega must be an interesting character.  His books are a bizarre mixture of fantasy/horror and crime drama.  Many of his characters are not the kind of people you’d want to live next door to or even meet.  They range from anti-social to sociopath to worse.  And his books are never linear.  They track back and forth in time and place and skip from voice to voice in unexpected directions.

I’ve read and reviewed two other books by Caspar Vega, “The Pink Beetle” and the “The Eclectic Prince.”  And after each one I confirm both to myself and to my readers that Mr. Vega’s stories are way outside my wheelhouse.  Not that I only read or enjoy light-hearted fare.  I enjoy horror and even crime drama.  But there is something nihilistic about the atmosphere in these stories that is off-putting for me.  I must be getting old.

But here I am again.  I decided to try out Southern Dust.  The premise of the story is that in the near future the Democrats assassinate a Republican president and install one of their own through chicanery.  In response, a revolt in Alabama breaks the state away from the Union.  And in short order a good number of other states also declare their independence.  This story follows the fates of three individuals that collide in this strange new world.

Along with the other suppositions of this world are super soldiers, vampires and black magic.  But the mainstay of the story are the characters.  And they live up to the type that I remember from Mr. Vega’s earlier books.  Even the good guys are very troubled individuals.  The criminals on the other hand can be at least somewhat sympathetic but brutality is their stock in trade.  Murder for hire, framing up ex-girlfriends and bounty hunting all occur but brain-washed undead is probably the weirdest plot device you run into.  And even when one of the characters tries to do a good deed it boomerangs back on him in the classic no good deed  goes unpunished catergory.

I’ll finish my review of this book much as I’ve done with its predecessors, with a mixed message.  This is an interesting book.  But it’s not for everyone. It’s for those who like gritty crime dramas with a staccato, post-modern, minimalist writing style.  Your call.