Scorsese and De Niro.
Fellini and Mastroianni.
John Ford and the Duke.
And now ... David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen?
After working on only two films together, the partnership of Canada’s master of the grotesque and Aragon from “Lord of the Rings” is starting to resemble those other world-class director/actor collaborations.
First there was 2005’s “A History of Violence,” a seething drama about a family man with an ugly secret past that garnered rave reviews, two Oscar nominations and slots on many of the year’s best-of lists.
Now it’s “Eastern Promises,” a stomach-churning melodrama set inside the violent world of London’s Russian mob. The film opens Friday.
Cronenberg and Mortensen don’t just make memorable movies together. As they made clear in two recent phone interviews, they view themselves as cinematic and fraternal soul mates.
“I consider myself quite fortunate to do back-to-back movies with him,” Mortensen said. “It’s unusual in this business to find yourself on the same wavelength as a director.
“Plus, David is just starting to hit his stride. Usually someone who’s been making movies for 30 years starts to tire, but his curve keeps going up and up. It’s almost like he’s getting younger and more adventurous with every movie.”
Cronenberg is no less complimentary of his leading man.
“Viggo is just a lovely person, a sweetheart,” Cronenberg said .
“He has a wonderful sense of humor that is bizarrely similar to my own. We’re more like brothers, really, and that makes for a very close artistic collaboration. It’s not something you have to have to make a movie, but I do believe it gives us a much higher platform from which to launch.”
Both men are sticklers for research.
Cronenberg learned all he could about the Russian mob, which he describes as “capitalism in its most predatory form.”
“Here’s what happened after the fall of communism,” Cronenberg said. “You had a system of police and athletes supported by government, and suddenly that support was gone. Say you’re a karate expert training for the Olympics. You know discipline, you don’t fear violence, you thrive on camaraderie.
“Suddenly there’s no money for the Olympics, so you turn to crime, along with lots of other athletes, former military and KGB guys. You still have your old skills, only now you use them to earn money illegally.
“But whereas Western capitalism had 500 years to work out the kinks and cover up its brutal origins, the Russian mob is still an infant. They don’t just kill their enemies ... unlike the Mafia, they go after their enemies’ wives, children, mothers. Sicily is pretty refined compared to Siberia.”
Russian gangsters, Cronenberg said, are a case study in capitalism in its most basic and brutal form.
“We’re shocked at the behavior of certain CEOs,” he said, “whereas we ought to consider it simply the natural outcome of this particular system.”
Meanwhile Mortensen was throwing himself into researching the role of Nikolai, the immaculately groomed driver and “fixer” for a London-based Russian crime family. He learned to speak Russian (about half his dialogue is delivered in that language, with English subtitles). He went to Russia to help him imagine the life his character led.
“The most fun I have is creating a back story for my characters,” Mortensen said. “My first question is always what happened to this man between the cradle and page one of the script? The answer to that question is usually very long and complicated and never fully explained ... but it colors all aspects of my performance.”
The film’s dramatic highlight finds Nikolai being attacked in a steam bath by a couple of blade-wielding killers from a rival crime family. The scene is sure to become a classic, both for its unflinching brutality and for the fact that Mortensen wears nothing but tattoos.
“There was no time to be self-conscious,” the actor said.
“It’s not gratuitous. And it’s certainly not pretty. My body looks worse for wear in that scene. But it serves the plot.”
Cronenberg said he wanted to stage the fight in such a manner that every move of the three combatants could be followed.
“It’s not like the Bourne movies where everything’s blurred. I want to see everything as it happens,” Cronenberg said.
“I knew I was going to have to talk to Viggo about what he’d wear in the scene, but as soon as we started to he said, `It’s obvious I’m going to have to play this nude.’ And that was that. We shot the fight over two days, which was really fast. But I wanted to minimize Viggo’s exposure to injury.
“Viggo is so dedicated ... he would never admit it to me then, but the makeup guy later told me he was spending more time covering up Viggo’s bruises than putting on his tattoos.”
But don’t go looking for a macho-centric action picture, Mortensen said. “Eastern Promises,” which also stars Naomi Watts, French star Vincent Cassel and German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, aims to be more.
“To me it’s a movie about kindness and compassion and self-sacrifice,” he said. “Nikolai is a man who holds hope and compassion next to his despair and fear. In this increasingly complicated and confusing world, there are people even in the darkest realms who will nonetheless do the right thing.
“Just because it is the right thing.”
DAVID CRONENBERG CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
“Eastern Promises” (2007)
“A History of Violence” (2005)
“M. Butterfly” (1993)
“Naked Lunch” (1991)
“Dead Ringers” (1988)
“The Fly” (1986)
“The Brood” (1979)
VIGGO MORTENSEN CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
“Eastern Promises” (2007)
“A History of Violence” (2005)
“Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-03)
“A Walk on the Moon” (1999)
“G.I. Jane” (1997)
” The Portrait of a Lady” (1996)
“The Indian Runner” (1991)
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