A decade has passed since the always-provocative director David Cronenberg shocked audiences with one of cinema's greatest and most nakedly vulnerable fight scenes.
By
Maria Lewis

9 Jun 2017 - 1:35 PM  UPDATED 18 Jan 2018 - 5:42 PM

Eastern Promises' is available to stream at SBS On Demand. Scroll down for link.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘swinging dick’, a term usually used to describe a male’s presence when he is trying to directly imply or outwardly flex his power. Heck, odds are you’ve met a ‘swinging dick’ in your time. But how many people can say that being one, having one even, landed them an Oscar nomination? Viggo Mortensen can, and few who have seen Eastern Promises could argue that he didn’t deserve it.

David Cronenberg’s 2007 Russian mafia thriller came off the back of a swell of critical and commercial support for A History Of Violence, released just two years earlier. It would be the first of three collaborations between the veteran filmmaker and Mortensen, and an uncharacteristically normal movie for someone who once made Naked Lunch and Videodrome. Eastern Promises was the continuation of a broad idea at the centre of A History of Violence: a man and a situation that is not what it initially seems. British screenwriter Steven Knight did what he does better than almost anyone else in the business, and that was craft an intricate, authentic and complex world of crime (see also: Peaky BlindersTaboo, Dirty Pretty Things and Locke). Part mystery, part crime drama, part thriller, it unfolded beautifully thanks to the convincing performances of its cast in Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel. And although the film works beautifully as a succinct whole, there’s one scene that has lived on in cinematic legend: the sauna fight scene.

All of the great movies have them; a scene that’s instantly unforgettable and leaps out at a viewer as the one that is discussed around the water cooler when talking about the film. Alien had its chest burster over the dinner table, Up had its heartbreaking opening montage and Jaws… well, lets just say kids in the 1970s avoided floatable lilos for a reason. Eastern Promises had the sauna fight, a scene so unforgettable that legendary film critic Roger Ebert once said it “sets the same kind of standard [for fight scenes] that The French Connection set for chases. Years from now, it will be referred to as a benchmark." Fast-forward 10 years later and, as per usual, Ebert was right. The specifics of the plot aren’t needed to break down this particular cinematic moment, and in fact it’s almost better if you don’t know them. All you need to know is this: two Chechen gangsters enter a Turkish bathhouse to take out a mobster they mistakenly think is Mortensen’s character, Nikolai. Unsuspecting and dressed in nothing more than a towel, Nikolai is forced to fight for his life across bathroom tiles slick with moisture, sweat and (soon) blood.

The two assailants – both dressed head-to-toe in black leather, one standing at 6.5ft – search for Nikolai in the bathhouse as the movie enters its final third. They identify him thanks to his tattoos; marks of his position and power within the Russian crime syndicate he works for. Each man carries a linoleum cutter, something Cronenberg had decided they would use as weapons (if stopped in the street, the men would have a plausible excuse for carrying them). Within the first few seconds of the scene, Mortensen’s towel falls off as he proceeds to fight against two armed attackers with his dick out and swinging. It bears repeating: one of the most intense, unrelenting and vulnerable action scenes of all time is performed by Mortensen with his dick entirely out for over three minutes. Flesh is shanked, eyes are gouged, limbs are broken, all while Mortensen’s Aragon is left swinging in the wind.

In Knight’s original script, the scene is barely more than two paragraphs and was written to have been much shorter and much less dramatic than what ends up on screen. When it came to filming it, however, that’s when the magic happened. “It’s David Cronenberg, so you kind of do whatever he says,” said Mortensen in an interview with Conan O’Brien from earlier this year. Even though the Lord Of The Rings star was promoting Captain Fantastic – for which, coincidentally, he also received an Oscar nomination and did full-frontal nudity – O’Brien had to ask about that scene from a decade ago. Because in a career that has spanned Middle Earth to Apocalyptic futures, everyone always wants to know about that scene. With minimal editing, there’s little room to hide anything, which makes it both a brave performance for Mortensen as an actor but also as an athlete, with protection pads ruled out early in rehearsal as they would show up on camera. “All I was wearing was a bunch of tattoos,” the actor told The Telegraph back in 2007 after the film had premiered to a stir at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Originally intending to be shot over six days, the scene was cut down to a two day shooting schedule. While a majority of Eastern Promises’ locations were real places repurposed for the production’s needs, a set was built specifically for the bathhouse scene and based on London’s Ironmonder Row Baths, which were first opened in the 1930s. A professional stuntman for nearly 30 years, Julian Spencer was tasked with coming up with the choreography for the now-famous scene. Sure, he had worked on James Bond movies and Braveheart, but he had never coordinated a fight scene where one of the players is completely naked. “They went all out,” Spencer said, in an interview back in 2008. “I knew that it was going to end up being a bloody mess. In scenes like this, I worry about over-choreographing, because then it starts to look staged.” Spencer worked closely with the art department as the bathhouse set was constructed, adding padded tiles among the real ones and then rehearsing the scene closely with the actors so they would know where to land. Mortensen, for his part, has never held back when it comes to nudity on screen. Yet there’s nudity, and then there’s Eastern Promises nudity. It’s the kind of movie nudity that ten years later has an entire active Reddit thread dedicated specifically to it. While other action films focus on the impenetrability of their heroes, Cronenberg did what he has often done, and pulled a U-turn when it came to audience expectations. John McClane or Rambo might take 20 hits and keep moving, but it’s Nikolai’s vulnerability – and Mortensen's willingness to play ball – that make Eastern Promises’ sauna fight scene truly iconic.

Watch 'Eastern Promises' at SBS On Demand