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Universal Studios Home Video presents
"Stay away from people like me."
DVD ReviewYou might be a sucker for thrillers, or weary of them, or both—there are so many, and almost all feel warmed over—but whatever your outlook, you're likely to be jolted by what David Cronenberg does here with the genre. He's such a canny filmmaker that he knows he need not engage in any wheel reinvention—he quickly establishes a world of mayhem, so the slightest little disturbance on screen is enough to make us jump. The final product is a movie in which not a frame seems wasted, and which delivers a wallop along with a sociological glimpse into a little-seen and publicity-shy subculture. Not bad for an hour and forty minutes, eh?
We're oriented to the world of the film from the opening moments, when a Turkish adolescent in London makes his bones by slitting the carotid artery of a Russian mobster in his uncle's barber chair. And then the story gives us a seemingly stark juxtaposition when we meet Naomi Watts, who plays a midwife; we quickly learn, though, that we're seeing just the other side of an ugly little coin when a pregnant Russian teenager shows up hemorrhaging blood. She doesn't survive, but her baby does, as does her diary, and Anna (Watts) seeks out any information she can about this orphaned little newborn.
Anna's good intentions and own psychological makeup quickly ensnare her in a world she'd be wise to avoid—Semyon (a lazily dangerous Armin Mueller-Stahl) is ostensibly a Russian restaurateur with a killer borscht recipe, but only the willfully ignorant wouldn't recognize him as a killer. Anna parries with him in a quest for information—her drunken uncle is translating the diary for her, slowly, and learning things he shouldn't, and we find out that Anna's last relationship went south, and a recent pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, so the plight of the baby has profound psychological resonance for a woman whose profession, you might otherwise imagine, would inure her to the particular charms of any one baby not her own.
But the film is probably more interested in the internal workings of the Russian mob presence in London than it is in the fate of that little girl, and Viggo Mortensen at the center of the storm gives a sinuous, volatile performance. His Kolya is a button man who wants to move up the organized-crime food chain, and he knows that he's in a bind, because his capo is Semyon's idiot son, Kirill (played with a kind of pigheaded brilliance by Vincent Cassel), which means that he's going to have to kill the king or get him to renounce his progeny. Too much plot description will spoil the sense of discovery you get watching the film—but it's not giving away the store to talk about a climactic showdown in a bathhouse. It's a sequence that's brutal and primal, graphic in its violence, and notable because Mortensen is naked for all of it—it's as much a study of the male nude as it is a classic action set piece soaked in blood.
You can also see that Cronenberg and screenwriter Steven Knight have become extraordinarily well informed about the workings of the Russian mob, the vory y zakone—the film is attuned to its carefully calibrated, intricate social conventions, and the fact that these mobsters' bodies are festooned with tattoos that serve as signifiers for their experiences and allegiances provide the filmmakers with a visually splendid motif as well as one more way to investigate the human form. The story's conclusion is haunting and full of surprises; you even come to forgive the movie some of its hokier elements, such as the dead girl reading to us from her diary in voice-over, the kind of thing that would seem cheesy under almost any other cinematic circumstances. It's not a film for the feint of heart, certainly, nor does it upend our expectations; but it's thoughtful and tense and taut, just the stuff we're looking for.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The palette is dark and saturated in the film's production design, so the occasional shortcomings in the transfer are evident—things can get a little too murky in some of the dark corners, though overall this is passable.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The frequently funereal musical score along with the thick, often impenetrable Eastern and Central European accents can make for some tough sledding, though the 5.1 track is brimming with atmospherics.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Atonement, Lust, Caution, Reservation Road, Canvas, HD-DVD promo
Extras Review: Only two featurettes: Secrets and Stories (10m:32s) is a fairly conventional making-of piece, emphasizing the Russian mob presence in London, and featuring interviews with the director, screenwriter and principal cast members; and Marked for Life (6m:42s), a look at the evolution and importance of tattoos to the Russians and to the film.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsMenacing and sinister and graphic, David Cronenberg's film is a wicked thriller that is likely to haunt you. The only disappointment is the paucity of supplemental material on this DVD.
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