One dark night in London, a Russian teenager dies in childbirth and the midwife at the hospital (Naomi Watts), who is conveniently half-Russian herself, takes the woman's diary and seeks to have it translated in order to find the girl's next of kin to give the baby to. In the first of many implausible moments, the midwife doesn't wait for her Russian uncle to translate, but instead finds a business card for a Russian restaurant in the diary and takes it to the creepy old proprietor (German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, fine as usual).
Surprise, surprise: the restauranteur, Semyon, is actually a Russian mobster with ties to the dead girl. But the story is more about Semyon's live wire son Kirill (French actor Vincent Cassel) and Kirill's driver (American actor Viggo Mortensen – apparently there are no actual Russian actors in the world), who bonds with Watts as she uncovers the truth about Semyon.
There's a lot wrong with Eastern Promises, and it mostly has to do with Steve Knight's clumsy screenplay. Knight wrote a more successful script for Dirty Pretty Things, and his followup walks the same beat: a London filled with immigrants and underworld types. But while Dirty Pretty Things transcended Knight's screenwriting cliches, thanks to director Stephen Frears' familiarity with London and the freshness of his diverse cast, Eastern Promises doesn't get away as easily.
The clunkers are myriad: an explosive moment of betrayal is dumbed down by dialogue so obvious that any idiot who wandered in an hour late will get it; a subplot involving Scotland Yard features a completely unnecessary plot twist; a romantic moment shoehorned into the finale feels like a studio executive's interference ("You got a guy, you got a girl, they gotta kiss!"); then the film just kind of ends. Also, the Russian characters speaking to each other sometimes in Russian and sometimes in heavily-accented English is distracting. Finally, Naomi Watts is lifeless in her role.
So no, I can't recommend this film. But I will credit Mortensen with flawless work. He's terrific – by far the best thing in the movie. (If that Scotland Yard plot twist were thrown out, his character could have been as interesting as his performance.) I also found the relationship between Nikolai and Kirill fascinatingly ambiguous.
Cult director Cronenberg paces the film briskly enough, considering its modest scale, and throws in a few of his trademark squirmy scenes about the fragility of human flesh. But he couldn't negate my disappointment with the usually-reliable Watts's dull performance, and with Knight's lazy script.