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Apr 30 2019

The New Classics - Eastern Promises

Michael Cusumanohere to argue a case for the the best fight scene of the last two decades.

The Scene: The Sauna Fight
It's no surprise that just about every discussion of the sauna fight fromEastern Promisesdwells on the bare skin.If the King of Middle Earth strips down to his tattoos it's gonna dominate the conversation.

And it's not only gawking.It's thematically on point.This scene uses nakedness to make you feel a character's vulnerability as effectively as any film sincePsycho,plus all the skin on display reflects the film's obsession with bodies -- bodies as currency and bodies defaced and disfigured...

All that said,Cronenberg had to do more than display a zero-body fat Viggo Mortensen to deliver the pinnacle of 21st century fight scenes.The scene's brilliance is in the way it makes the viewer feel as exposed as Nikolai.Just as with musical numbers,fight scenes often cue the audience that it is entering a heightened reality where genuine danger is absent.Cronenberg eliminates these cues.

The simplest comfort Cronenberg denies the viewer is music.Up until this scene Howard Shore's rich score has permeated the film.During the fight it goes silent putting the audience in the midst of every grunt,slice,and crunch.Likewise,the editing barely allows the audience a breath before plunging into the carnage.Just two fleeting shots,a few frames each,where Nikolai registers a fully dressed man in a sauna.This puts us off our balance,skipping the expected beats of Nikolai sensing danger.The bloodshed is underway before we've had a chance to brace ourselves.

All these choices are effective,but what really makes this sequence sing is how it never quite triggers our suspension of disbelief,despite stretching for over three minutes.No action is so polished as too feel choreographed.Not a single punch,cut,or fall is absorbed without registering the cost.Characters grow tired.They grow desperate.The most improbable moment in the whole melee is when Viggo disarms a knife-wielding goon with a kick and Cronenberg is sure to show the whole action in a medium shot with no cuts,so we have no cause to doubt.

Throughout the fight the shooting and cutting places a premium on clarity,mostly medium or full body shots,and when it goes in for a close-up it's to emphasize a detail,not to obscure the action.Camera moves are smooth and confident,even though shaky-cam was all the rage at the time (Eastern Promisesshared multiplexes withThe Bourne Ultimatum).Nothing is there to call attention to itself.Even the stunning final shot of a brutalized Nikolai dragging himself across the sauna floor for over a minute isn't there to showboat with a long take,but to set the viewer up for its brutal capper.We expect trickery in edits so when the shot doesn't cut away,we buy the final gut-churning stab in a way we rarely do with movie violence.

Screenwriter Steven Knight lays the groundwork for the scene so elegantly we are able to follow the internal strategy every bit as much as the external action.Two men armed with knives against a naked man should be a massacre,but we know exactly why these killers underestimate Viggo's fearsome gangster.Not only have they have been deceived to think Nikolia is Vincent Cassell's much weaker character,but earlier in the film we've seen these killers play out a similar execution of an unsuspecting victim and it was over in seconds.Thanks to this level of care on the screenplay level,when Nikolai is able to beat the odds and eke out a victory we don't take it as movie fakery but as the story tracking with what we know.On top of which,Nikolai's quickness to action is clever foreshadowing for the film's eventual big reveal as to his identity.This is not a man who drops his guard inanysituation.

Though the violence is brutal and vividly realized,the gore is not all that extreme by Cronenbergian standards.No shot here is the equivalent,of,say,seeing the robber's face blown open during the thwarted diner stick-up in A History of Violence.But there was no need to show men ripped open this time.The horror of one man's total defenselessness was hair-raising enough.Where other fight scenes attepmpt to wow us with elaborate pageants of tough guy posturing that elevate human beings to near invincibility,the filmmaker who has always been fascinated by the frailty of the human body crafted a classic by respecting our limitations.

Last week: Tilda Swinton gets her comeuppance in one of thegreat collapses of modern cinema

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Reader Comments (14)

whole hearted agreement.very good pick.

April 30,2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

Great fight scene,and great character observation in this write-up - and in the scene.I know I am thinking about someone slipping on the tiles every time I see it.

The phrase "Characters grow tired"brought to my mind the fight scene towards the end of 'Atomic Blonde'.Not quite on this level,but a good one.

April 30,2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Good call on Atomic Blonde,which didn't get *nearly* enough credit upon release.(Neither did Eastern Promises,incidentally.)

April 30,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I didn't like this film but appreciated the fight scene and the write up.

May 1,2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I haven't seen this movie since it came out and this made me really want to see it again.Loved this scene and write-up.I remember the movie as a whole had some problems (I far prefer A History of Violence) but it was a good few years in Cronenberg's career!

May 1,2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I give any male actor credit who has the balls (no pun intended) to go full frontal in a film.Plus,he does it with such obvious lack of vanity.I'm sure there was a part of him that worried what he would look like giving a naked kick,but he sure didn't act like he cared.

May 1,2019 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I had boycotted the Oscars after the Brokeback Mountain debacle and it lasted all of one year.亚博主页Because when I saw that Viggo was a definite contender,which I had not expected,I was right back in the thick of it.Viggo should have won that year (especially over Daniel Day-Lewis' hambone shenanigans) and the film,which I think is Cronenberg's best,should have been up for a lot more awards (Picture,Director,Screenplay,for starters).

May 1,2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Rebecca - I rewatched Atomic Blonde for the first time when writing this,just for a point of comparison.Very impressed,although I'd still give the edge to Cronenberg for the way he threads that believability needle.Also rewatched the fights from Haywire and a few Bourne fights.

Nat - we were on the same page on EP in 2007 but repeat viewings do enormous favors to this movie.I now view this and Violence as a matching set,more or less equal

May 1,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

@Ben,"I give any male actor credit who has the balls (no pun intended) to go full frontal in a film."Why?There's nothing brave or even sexual/shameful/sinful about mere nudity;I mean,actresses do it all of the time without applause or hosannas.

May 1,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko


The unfortunate reality of Hollywood is that the expectation for actresses is to show some skin,while the men have to actually fight for nudity to be a part of their films (not that it makes them brave,but studios have a tendency to scoff at the commercial ramifications of male nudity).

There is still some weird stigma in Hollywood about male nudity,especially when it is in a non-sexual manner.

I think it essentially it boils down to "boobs are fun,dicks are weird"

May 1,2019 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Ken - I'm going to pretend I didn't read that DDL comment and agree Promise deserved many more accolades than it received.I think Howard Shore score is superior to about 60-80% of the nominees that year to name just one.

May 1,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

It's not just Hollywood that has a problem with male nudity.It's America as a whole.Americans will scream/laugh in the sight of a man in a speedo,let alone any kind of nudity.

May 1,2019 | Unregistered CommenterKl

Kl -- that's so true.I find it bizarre that even speedos upset people but it's true.I've seen people visibly react to them,and not in good ways.it's strange.America has so many sexual hangups.

MIchael -- i dont really get the Academy when it comes to Shore.He's done wonderful scores and they only like him on Lord of the Rings?strange.

May 2,2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This new series is very interesting,congrats.

May 3,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcel

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