Heeeeey, someone got their January movie in my April movie! Half-cooked story and overcooked plot set against green-screened vistas to a busily sweeping score is the stuff of late winter, not early spring! This is the time for blockbusters that don’t want to compete against other blockbusters. This is the time for cars and family if we just so happen to be in a FAST leap year (which occurs once every two years or so, with increasing frequency). This is not the time to expect lengthy historical romance pictures set during the Armenian genocide. But here we are.
So let’s start with that. Constantinople is definitely a setting we don’t often see outside of They Might Be Giants songs, and with the Turkish government still to this day refusing to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide occurred, it’s nice to see the events presented as fact (which they are, in case any members of the Turkish government are listening). Being an American whose only knowledge of Armenia comes from System of a Down, and whose only knowledge of WWI comes from faded memories of War Horse, this film served as a nice history lesson for me. Shame that, save for a few effective sequences, the bulk of it is a terribly bland affair.
The good news is that some deft impressionist is going to watch this movie and crack the perfect impersonation of Christian Bale. It’s time he joined the ranks of Christopher Walken and Samuel L. Jackson in having an ubiquitous thing that everyone can sort of do which indicates “I’m doing a Christian Bale.” We just need a leader to find that thing and blaze the trails for the rest of us. I think The Promise holds the key to whatever that thing is, but I’m just not the guy to extricate it. It’s a very thingy performance.
On the other hand, our leading players, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon are clearly in a slightly better movie, at least in their heads. Where they are you can almost believe they are in the exact time and place as the CGI steamship behind them would suggest. This oddball mashup of tone would actually work wonders if the whole cast were on the same page; even further if they all agreed to lean into old Hollywood melodrama, but as it is, the everyone is all over the place. It’s distracting. No lie, I laughed a little bit almost every time Bale spoke, while Isaac had me moved almost to tears at points.
It’s tough material to elevate.
This seems like it’s based on a specific true story rather than just during a true period but I can’t find anything indicating that the film’s main narrative occurred, which makes it a bit harder to forgive the endless parade of loose genre hops which unfold over such a long runtime. Here’s the jist:
Mikael (Isaac) is an Armenian apothecary who gets betrothed to a local woman in the interest of securing her dowry and funding his way through medical school. It sounds like a low thing to do, but apparently it’s par for the course at the time. Plus, Mikael takes this promise very seriously. He has every intention of becoming a licensed doctor and setting up shop to provide for his town and his family. The thing is, while he’s studying in Constantinople he falls in love with Ana (Le Bon). Guilt racks Mikael. He made a promise. He made THE promise, and since Ana is currently dating an American journalist, Chris (Bale), they decide the best thing to do is not worry about their current ties and GET. IT. ON. Screw the titular promise which has absolutely zero relevance to the film — a war is about to happen! The time for a little cushion pushin’ is now!
Chris suspects something is up between Mikael and Ana, but then war breaks out, and Mikael is taken prisoner by the Turks and oh my god there is just so so sooooo much movie left at this point. But I’m serious when I say that the betrothal (the promise) carries very little weight, if any, and is the only promise made throughout the entire movie so I am positive that I’m not missing anything. There’s an action packed train sequence, a beachfront battle, a prison escape, political intrigue, un-steamy sex, and even an execution by firing squad. And it just keeps going and going and going and going and if I weren’t currently sitting at a laundromat I’d be convinced I was still watching it.
But it’s not all bad! There’s a lot to like here. Plenty of the scenes have their intended effect, and CGI squabbles aside, a lot of the imagery works really well. Marwan Kenzari, an actor with whom I was wholly unfamiliar, steals the show as a Turkish med student with royal parentage who both objects to the pending war and is good friends with Mikael and other Armenians. When he is drafted to fight in the Turkish army, we are treated to a deeply nuanced and touching arc which Kenzari brings to life in an endearing, sometimes heartrending way.
Both James Cromwell and Jean Reno pop in as well, so there’s that.
Ooh ooh ooh! There’s one part where Oscar Isaac dives into the water to mount a sea rescue (yes, a sea rescue happens too), and it’s such a sloppy, clumsy dive. He trips over the edge of the boat and half-belly flops, and as funny as it is, it’s not played for humor. This is why you hire stuntmen! I’m admittedly happy to report that dreamy heartthrob Oscar Isaac is as good a diver as I.
I will once again invoke the hypothetical hungover high school teacher who desperately needs to show a video to get through the day. Luckily for them and their students, The Promise is good enough to pass the time and dish out a little bit of, say it with me, Apocalypse: LEEEEEEEEAAAARRRRRRNNNNIIIIINNNNG.
The Promise opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.