EASTERN PROMISES — *** — Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl; with subtitles (Eastern European dialects); rated R (violence, gore, profanity, nudity, vulgarity, sex, drugs, slurs)

The bloody opening scenes of David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" recall his early blood-and-guts work.

In fact, the violence here makes the more horrifying moments of his 2005 winner "A History of Violence" seem tame by comparison.

Add to that some particularly graphic sex and nudity, and "Eastern Promises" may be difficult for some moviegoers. But this mystery/mob thriller is still a worthwhile and effective piece — one that features some very good performances.

Viggo Mortensen takes another confident lead turn as Nikolai Luzhin. He's currently working as a chauffeur for both London restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his mob-connected son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

Both become involved to varying degrees with midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), who has come into possession of a diary that belonged to a young Russian prostitute who died during childbirth.

Since the entries were written in Russian, Anna has asked Semyon to help translate it. But as it turns out, the diary contains secrets that both he — and Kirill — don't want revealed.

Watts is a fine actress, and her performance here is properly understated, but her character is a bit of a cipher. Frankly, we're much more interested in Mortensen's charismatic and apparently conflicted Nikolai.

That's because Cronenberg and screenwriter Steven Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things") have created a character that has gray moral shadings. Mortensen is very convincing as Nikolai, and his Russian accent is impeccable.

He even manages to better the always commanding Mueller-Stahl and French actor Cassel ("Ocean's Twelve"), which is no easy accomplishment.

"Eastern Promises" is rated R for strong scenes of violent action (stabbings, brawling and a throat-slashing), other disturbing violent imagery, graphic gore and blood, strong sexual language (profanity, crude slang terms and other suggestive talk), full male and female nudity, simulated sex and other sexual contact, drug content (heroin references), and slurs based on race, ethnicity and sexual preference. Running time: 96 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com