Nobody likes to call a practically perfect genre film that whirs along with the inerrant precision of a Swiss watch "hackwork," so let me instead suggest that Eastern Promises continues the evolution begun in Spider and A History of Violence whereby David Cronenberg is redefining himself as an exceptionally gifted director of essentially non-Cronenbergian films.

That hardly means that the films are any kind of bad, but when I read of the director admitting in interviews that he made Eastern Promises largely because it was the project he could get funded, I don't feel shock or disappointment so much as confirmation. This is a film that feels, except for a few choice moments, like the work of a slightly bored craftsman phoning it in. Even though, God knows, Cronenberg "phoning it in" is several orders of magnitude greater than most of his colleagues.

Eastern Promises could as well be titled A People's Glorious History of Violence; it is content to echo the director's last film in theme, with the change that this time the country whose violent psychic scars are being torn open is Russia, not America. Then again, the story takes place in the same grimy London underworld of immigrants that housed screenwriter Steven Knight's Dirty Pretty Things. Like that story, Eastern Promises centers on an innocent, the half-Russian hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), through whose eyes we are introduced to the squalid mise en scène. This time we also get a surrogate on the inside, mob enforcer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who literally carries a history of violence on his back.

If there's one thing that Cronenberg is noted for, it's his obsession with bodily mortification (particularly as it relates to sex, or at least the sex organs). In his last film, that largely meant lots of blood, but here it crops up in the metaphorically weighty tattoos that Nikolai wears across his back, chest and arms. We are told that these tattoos are given in Russian prisons, and that they tell a history of the bearer: where he has been, who he has known, what he has done. They are biography; they are the markers of a life in sin. It's typical of the director's preoccupations that the evil men do in life should take the form of corrupted, stained flesh, and the most transcendent moments in the film tend to be those which focus on Nikolai's body. It helps, of course, that Nikolai is played by someone as apeshit crazy and brilliant as Mortensen.

My God. Viggo. Ladling superlatives on his performance like he's just some Oscar chaser is the vilest kind of reduction, but the fact stands that this is a wildly successful characterisation. His character, on paper, is fairly typical and simple: a dangerous man of violence, quiet even as he strangles the life out of you. We've all seen that character. Yet Mortensen plays that character with a dispassionate intensity (which is a paradox, until you see the film) that I've never quite seen before. His bearing is not in the least threatening or overpowering, his eyes are unfocused, but he still seems incredibly brutal; owing to small things like his general motionlessness, or the way he doesn't seem to look away, or the time that he puts a cigarette out on his fucking tongue, not because it is cool but because he genuinely doesn't seem to register that there are better ways of doing that.

Mortensen is a character actor to end character acting: it was his innovation, apparently, to foreground the prison tattoos, and his seeming anxiousness to be hurt that leads to the film's absolutely most unforgettable moment. Now, this is a particularly brutal film: not so many violent scenes as in A History of Violence, but they are much harsher, from the incredibly nasty throat-cutting in the film's first minutes. But the pièce de résistance is a late fight scene between Mortensen, who is nude, and two men, who are not, in a public bath. The rawness on display here, the ugly business of flesh being gouged and punched and sliced, is as overpowering as anything I've ever witnessed in the cinema - on a level completely removed from the bored fanboyism of slasher films, and much more visceral than the hyper-cinematic violence in a film by Scorsese or the like. It would be too much to credit Mortensen, although it could not possibly work without his contribution. More that it is the simplicity of the fight (no elegant choreography here, just men whomping into each other), and the brilliantly uncomfortable addition of the naked actor, emphasising his physical essence and the damage being done to that physical essence.

Outside of that scene and that actor, Eastern Promises is actually a bit flat, truth be told. For one thing, Naomi Watts gets nothing to do. Oh, she does it as well as she is able, but this is not a great part, and no actor could make it so.

But really, there's just a lot of ennui on display. Maybe that's not the right word. I just can't feel that after the devilishly satisfying puzzle box that was A History of Violence, there's something a bit programmatic to the story here; and there's altogether less grand invention on the part of the director in most of the film. Make no mistake, it's a solid piece of thriller craftsmanship. But appreciating it is a bit too much an appreciation of technique and not the effect that technique creates.

Part of it, I suspect, is that Cronenberg has never had to work in a study of place before, which is what this is. All of his films are first about people: inasmuch as the films explore the relationship between humans and environment (and they absolutely do), it's "top-down," as it were, starting from the people's POV. Eastern Promises is very much invested in setting: and although Cronenberg does a very good job at capturing the details of place, the movie never quite makes the connection that the script wants, to describe how place influences people. Sure, characters talk about their world, but they never quite seem to be comfortable in it.

So does this film come across as a finely tuned bit of adult entertainment wrapped around a hollow core? Not exactly. Smart thrillers for grown-ups are thin on the ground, after all, and anything that proceeds with the ruthless efficiency of Eastern Promises deserves praise: it's "taut," to use one of the hoariest clichés one can use to describe a thriller. More importantly, it does have a core, just not the one that the screenplay would suggest: Nikolai, as embodied by Viggo Mortensen, an elemental force, like an angel of violence. We only partially get inside his head, but simply watching him smolder is exhilarating. It is not the mind-blowing experience that we so often get from the director, but Eastern Promises is a fine thriller anyway: brutal and relentless and exhausting.