Just as the shivering ghost of Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ hovers over the gruesome opening barbershop murder in Cronenberg’s impressive, if flawed, London-set mafia thriller, so can you can detect the influence of Paul Schrader in the samurai-ethics of its novitiate hero, Nikolai (an outstanding Viggo Mortensen), a lowly chauffeur with useful taxidermy skills, whose formidable forbearance, shaded tact and steely-strength mark him out as a man of yet-unfulfilled ambitions. Good influences on a great director, undoubtedly; but as Cronenberg’s thoughtful, atmospheric, meticulously-directed and slyly analytical film progresses – and as Nik becomes torn between his feelings for feisty midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) and duty to deceptively-bonhomous boss Semyon (Armin Muller-Stahl) whom she enlists to translate the diary of a dead Russian prostitute – it’s magpie intelligence make your body ache for shots of pure Cronenberg.
When they come – and they do, not least in the sordid symphony of slips, steel, blood and bare-flesh Cronenberg choreographs as the now-promoted ‘vory’ does gut-wrenchingly realistic battle with Chechen rivals on the wet tiles of Finsbury baths – it’s a pleasurable shock. It’s fascinating to watch Cronenberg apply his uniquely transgressive, dualist gaze to the Thameside alleys, velveteen private clubs and the psychological battles and shady internecine struggles of old and new Londoners. But his is a morally-complex vision seemingly at odds with that of the script provided by Steve ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ Knight, whose penchant for mechanistic and self-cancelling moral correspondences and ambiguities provides a birth for every death, for every racial, social or moral presumption, a clever qualification, reversal or inversion. The marriage of the two minds – the one fissive, the other more domesticated and pc – has produced a slightly hesitant, slightly undercharacterised and gently compromising, hybrid: an oddly diplomatic, if often brutal, dip into the hellish demi-mondes lurking behind bouncer-guarded London doorways, which while lacking either the immersive compulsion of his first ‘London’ film ‘Spider’ or the clarity and graphic power of his similarly-themed ‘A History of Violence’, offers something quite new and intriguing from Cronenberg, an ironic but undeniably romantic comment on the uncertain return on moral capital, an achievement that would have been inconceivable without Mortensen’s extraordinary central performance.