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Brave One and Eastern Promises
by Lucius Shepard
October 1, 2007

It's kind of sad . . . No, it's appalling, really, that Neil Jordan, director of The Butcher Boy and Mona Lisa, should have his name hitched to formulaic dreck like The Brave One, Jodie Foster's Charles-Bronson-in-a-thong revenge fantasy. Previously, Jordan has always managed to imbue his commercial films with at least a gloss of personality, but not this time. The movie plays like bad TV with better cinematography and tries to pass itself off as an important part of the feminist dialogue, when what it sounds like is the feminist dialogue declawed, pimped up with a bit of the old ultraviolence, and wrapped in a package that should appeal to folks who buy their DVDS at Costco and their CDs at Wal-Mart, people who prefer their entertainment still warm from the corporate tit.

Erica Bain (Foster) is a New York radio personality with a show called Street Walk. She's a pop intellectual, a snarky Andrea Rooney, who rues the day (as she states in an early scene) when Rudy Giuliani scoured mid-town clean of criminals and turned it into Disneyworld North, and believes that the city could stand a funkiness injection in order to renew its character. That this will come back to bite her in the ass is what passes for irony in Hollywood, but is for the rest of us an obvious set-up. When her fianc� David (Naveen Andrews of Lost) is killed by thugs, Erica begins talking in a terse half-whisper just like Jodie Foster in The Accused and half-a-dozen other films, buys a handgun, and goes to knocking off random bad guys. Now despite this, the story might have been handled with a modicum of wit and style, but the screenplay (by two guys named Taylor and a woman appropriately named Cynthia Mort) comes to us courtesy of the Paul Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah, and the script for Million Dollar Baby) School of Filmmaking, whose doctrine requires that every scrap of meaning be pounded into the audience's brain with a mallet. Trouble is, the movie can't decide what it enjoys more�riffing on Foster's lesbian cachet, letting her whip out her 9 mm dick and blow holes in an assortment of masculine villains, or trotting out its confused morality.

How confused is it?

After Erica initiates her Batwomanish reign of vigilante terror, she begins to allow call-ins to her radio show. The first caller praises the vigilante, the second thinks he or she should rot in prison, the third blames it all on the media . . . Get the picture? It's multiple choice! They're letting you go interactive with the movie, supplying five or six simplistic possibilities from among which you can pick your favorite point of view.

In another scene, an older woman, Erica's neighbor, who hails from a land plagued by blacks with guns, empathizes with the vigilante, implying that once Erica has done with Manhattan, she would do well to bring her own version of ethnic cleansing to Soweto. And for all its feminist drag, the suggestion is made that Erica's violence is nothing more than a psychotic burp and she'll be all better once she hooks up with a good man and puts herself under his consoling influence. Perhaps this idea is presaged when doctors are shown cutting off David-and-Erica's clothes after the beating, and this is intercut with scenes of the two enjoying a sensitive fuck, while Sara McLachlan keens in the background�it has to be the most manipulative usage of sex paired with violence since Spielberg's Munich, when he intercut a reunion coupling between Eric Bana (playing a Mossad agent) and his wife with clips from the Olympic massacre.

What can be said about a movie that's too chickenshit to dig into its heroine's psyche and show her enjoying her work? Just this. By contrast, Death Wish was a moral and intellectual triumph.

Critics and reviewers have a favorite word they like to use when discussing the films of David Cronenberg: transgressive. The meaning, as applied to art, has been defined thusly by the Atlantic Monthly:

�A genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.�

That certainly describes much of Cronenberg's work and�superficially, at least�seems to describe his latest, Eastern Promises. But there is a point at which the transgressive becomes so familiar, it verges on clich�, on the exploitative. Thus I was led to speculate, while watching the movie, that he begins his story with a mid-wife, Anna (Naomi Watts), delivering the baby of a fourteen-year-old Russian prostitute simply in order to show us, to shock us with, the barnyard aspects of a birth.

After the prostitute hemorrhages and bleeds out on the table, Anna finds a diary in her effects, and in the diary she finds a card advertising an upscale Russian restaurant belonging to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a charmingly sinister old-school Godfather type, who runs the Vory V Zakone, a criminal mafiya. She takes a copy of the diary to Semyon, the image of European decline amid the red-and-gold faux-Empire opulence of his restaurant, and asks him to translate it, and thus becomes involved with Semyon, his weakling son Kirill (Victor Cassell), and their enigmatic chauffeur, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a man also known as the Undertaker, a name referring to his skill in rendering bodies unidentifiable. In one scene, he hauls a body out of the freezer, softens the flesh with a blow drier, and cautions onlookers that they may want to leave the room before he starts �doing the teeth.� Unfortunately, the audience is not offered this same choice.

When I first became aware of Mortensen, initially in a small part in Carlito's Way and later in the effective B-picture American Yakuza, I had the sense that he would one day become a great actor. I don't believe he has fulfilled that promise, but with his chiseled features and astonishing blue eyes, his air of toughness and vulnerability, he has become an iconic figure, and Cronenberg has seen fit to make use of this quality in his last two films, the other being the vastly over-praised A History of Violence. That said, Mortensen is the best thing in Promises. Of the three main Russian characters, his is the only convincing portrayal, one for which he may well earn an Oscar nomination. Covered in gulag tattoos, he exudes menace yet maintains a palpable Russian soulfulness, the kind of man who one moment can make a woman feel treasured and the next can take a drugged-senseless prostitute from behind for the edification of his superiors, who wish him to prove his manhood. As Nikolai, and as the killer-in-hiding of History, it seems that Mortensen has become Cronenberg's inspiration, much as Marlene Dietrich once inspired Eric Von Stroheim, exemplifying Cronenberg's bleak view of humanity. Under Cronenberg's direction, Nikolai-Mortensen is a portrait of a doomed society embodied in a single man. �I'm dead already,� he says, and you believe not only that his statement is true, but also that it applies to you.

In the film's sure-to-be-much-talked-about set piece, Nikolai fights two Chechen assassins in a bathhouse, wearing nary a stitch of clothing. It's a persuasive scene, emblematicizing both this moribund everyman's vulnerability and his savagery, yet it is also exploitative, amping up the movie's homoerotic content (Kirill is a homosexual, ridiculed by Semyon's enemies), and concluding with the image of a knife slicing into an eyeball, a gratuitous Grand Guignol flourish. The film is rife with such flourishes, and as I left the theater I wondered what we are to make of Cronenberg, and what Cronenberg wants us to make of him. He has become the standard bearer for many twenty- and thirty-somethings' taste in movies. And there is a case to be made. In movies like DEAD RINGERS he aspired to more than his B-picture origins evidenced; yet while his latest films are said to be transgressive, the truth is that they are charged with the most simplistic of social and psychological observations, and are simply tarted-up versions of the same old crime movie less gifted directors have been producing for decades.

In a recent interview, Cronenberg says that he has grown tired of �all that,� the �all that� referring to his genre preoccupations on view in films such Videodrome; but he is obviously not done with his grindhouse influences. Without them, without the constant Grand Guignol touches, Promises, like History, is essentially a very traditional movie, even a sentimental movie, enlivened by Mortensen's compelling performances, and Cronenberg, whose last science fiction film, Existenz, betrayed his weariness with that genre, appears to have merely switched over to conventional thrillers. He has never been less than an intelligent director, but his intelligence seems enervated, his violent, transgressive tricks overplayed and old-fashioned. Though Promises stands as an outstanding B-picture, it fails to reach the heights of some of his past work, and certainly does not fulfill the promise of its fundamental conception, an attempt to explore more than the surface of multi-culti London. The copious amounts of blood and gross-out material detract from that purpose, and give rise to the suspicion that Cronenberg is not just tired of science fiction, but may be tired of making movies as well.