' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Ronin

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Great Movies: Ronin

-"What's the job?"
-"There are some people who have something we require and we want you to get it from them."


And that line from John Frankenheimer's 1998 "Ronin" describes its plot in full. What's the movie? It's about some people - who? Doesn't matter who - who have something they - the IRA, but that doesn't really matter either - require and they want these guys - the Ronin, as it were, a mishmash of ex CIA, ex KGB, others, but that doesn't matter so much either - to get it - it, being an apparently extremely valuable case, though, to clobber you over the head, it doesn't matter what's in the case. Everyone with me?

It's summer, the time for action movies, and "Ronin" knows just how to do action. My theory: true action movies should be lean, mean, done at breakneck speed, stripped of pageantry (see: "Salt"). "Ronin" is like a rip-roaring textbook on getting this right. It is pure, visceral filmmaking.

Consider the opening sequence. We are in Paris, the dead of the night, with a music score, establishing both mood and the upcoming characters, that is simultaneously suspenseful and elegiac. We are introduced to our principal character, Sam (Robert DeNiro), as he cases a flimsy bar filled with a few potentially shady other characters, and he does it in such a way that you don't precisely know what he is up to or what he is doing. If acting is reacting, as we are often told, DeNiro's work here illustrates that notion. In the grand scheme of things nothing happens in this five minutes. It is minimalism yielding the richest of results.

Eventually Sam will enter the bar. We meet a few of the others on whom the film will focus. There is Vincent (Jean Reno) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) who, like Sam, have been brought here by the IRA's Diedre (Natascha McElhone) for reasons to be explained. As they depart out the back entrance Diedre quizzes Sam and his two lines in response are glorious in the way they summarize his character in full.

-"Lady, I never walk into a place I don't how to walk out of."
-"Then why would you get into that van?"
-"You know the reason."


Supremely intelligent but driven by money. (Or is he?) The script is credited to J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz but, as cinemaphiles will note, Richard Weisz is, in fact, a psuedonym for the great David Mamet who did a complete re-write of Zeik's work and, oh, how it shows in dialogue that is both economic - "Why'd you have to kill, Larry?" - "It's Larry, is it?" - and brutally acerbic - "There's no more help. There's no more men. Are you afraid?" - "Of course, I'm afraid. You think I'm reluctant because I'm happy?"

Diedre brings the initial trio back to a drab warehouse - and every location in "Ronin will be drab, Frankenheimer noting in the director's commentary that they filmed in such a way to accentuate the grays and mute the brightness - where they find Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) and Spence (Sean Bean) waiting. These five are briefed on the situation. Diedre's people want a case in the possession of well armed men intent on preventing anyone from taking it. What's in the case is never revealed because, as the "Before Sunset" Ethan Hawke once opined, "that would take the piss outta the whole thing." (The esteemed Roger Ebert writes: "My guess: Inside this briefcase is the briefcase from 'Pulp Fiction.'")

They hatch a plan which will eventually turn into multiple plans, involving lots of gunfire and several explosions and multiple double-crosses and a couple brief, unforced appearances by (no sugarcoating it) bootylicious figure skating legend Katarina Witt and as many car chases as conventional movies have acts. The final chase, at the risk of blasphemy, is the finest I've witnessed as a moviegoer, elongated, riddled with stunts, flipped cars that are actually flipped cars, the steadily increasing agony highlighted by the expressions on McElhone's face as she steers the lead car, and eventually turning into a nail-biting torrent of tension as the two buzzing vehicles tear down a tunnel and then back out into the open against traffic.

Perhaps even more improbable, though, is now "Ronin" will gracefully morph into a buddy picture, the buddies being Sam and Vincent because after a plethora of people switching sides they will have to go it alone to retrieve the object of desire. Amidst all the mayhem, for only the briefest of moments, the film convincingly cultivates their friendship and brings it to full bloom in the customary Bullet Excavation Scene which becomes not just a bullet being pulled from a body - despite it being, as it must, a tad graphic - but an extreme examination in trust. Do you have faith in this guy, this guy who you hardly know, this guy who you have only really talked to between bouts of violence and in cars traversing scenic European locales at insane speeds, to take a pair of tweezers and remove a slug from your body? It's a magnificent moment with a majestic reaction shot from Reno the first time he fails to exhume it and a capping line by DeNiro written and delivered perfectly.

Yet that is not even their most captivating moment. Later, after their combatants have made out with the valuable case again, the two men sit in a cafe and talk through how and where to find the case. This is amazing. Why? Characters in movies are never allowed to think. Characters in movies are never allowed to work things out for themselves. But here we actually see two characters connect the dots. The filmmaker doesn't do it for them. It is also at this moment you realize how Sam seems to function as an Americanized James Bond.

Consider: Vincent smokes a cigarette and appears to have a glass of cognac resting before him. Sam? He's just drinking coffee. During the aforementioned bullet excavation when Sam is offered a drink prior to the gruesome surgery he replies, "No booze." He may be an international spy capable of firing a rocket launcher out a sun roof but he favors somber turtlenecks and jeans (probably just a standard pair of Levi's) over designer suits. And, most telling, to trick the cops who pull up alongside he and Diedre as they stake out the villa where the holders of the case are tucked away he leans over and forces them to lock lips. Once the pesky police have vacated the area, they pull apart, she gets a bemused little grin and their makeout session resumes before the scene cuts to....them trying to shoot their way to the case the next day. What, you thought there was going to a be a romantic interlude complete with double entendres? Nuh uh. Not here. All work, no play. Well, maybe a little play, but not much. Her name's just Diedre, okay, not Deidre O'Raunchy. There's business to attend to, people. Sam's got his mind on his money and his money on his mind. Take 007 for your action pickup team if you really want him but I'll go against the grain and select Sam, thanks very much. Ol' Jimmy'd be so busy flirting with Moneypenny Sam already would have out-thought him by six steps and won the game before tip-off.

As close as "Ronin" careens to perfection it's a shame the film chooses an alternate end to the one originally planned (and shot, you can find it in on the DVD). Admittedly the alternate end is darker and, as Frankenheimer notes in the commentary, the studio had a "tremendous investment" and, thus, once a test audience balked at such darkness a change was inevitable. But it's not horrible, the lines spoken in voiceover by Reno actually commenting on the heart of the film: "No questions. No answers. That's the business we're in."

Are there plot holes in "Ronin"? Undoubtedly. After all, innocent people get shot, guiltless cars go up in flames, time-honored fruit stands get run over, so on and so forth, and all with little-to-no police presence. Could this happen in the real world? Well, of course not, but who cares? No questions. No answers. That's the business "Ronin" is in. Weigh it by its action, nothing else, because that's what it is, all it is, a full tilt action picture, as good as the genre has ever elicited, and that might be exactly why, as Erich Schulte of Ruthless Reviews astutely notes, it "didn't make any money."

8 comments:

Rory Larry said...

And then John Frankenheimer gave us "Reindeer Games"

"I read your letters, convict. Don't play no reindeer games with me. "

Oh yeah, Gary Sinise uttered that line.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Ah yes. "Reindeer Games." I remember being SO excited to see "Reindeer Games" solely because it was Frankenheimer's follow up to "Ronin" and when I said "One for Reindeer Games" the guy working the register actually laughed, as if to say, "Dude, this is your warning." I should have listened.

Castor said...

An oddly captivating movie, I never really "enjoyed" this movie (the cinematography is really quite dark and grimy) but it never fails to keep me watching when I catch it on TV.

Nicholas Prigge said...

It is dark and grainy. Very much so. That's another variation on Bond. Glitzy locales that completely remove the glitziness.

Andy Buckle said...

This is such a personal and passionate review of a film you clearly love. You have even made me re-think my opinions of the film. I have actually seen this film close to 10 times. I had taped it off the TV and thought it was great. After watching the videos, I thought I would watch it again (after more than a 5 year absence), but it didn't hold up as well as I remember. I love the action sequences, and the cinematography - and I did like that opening scene actually. But some of the scenes at the warehouse and a few of the plot developments really didn't work for me; and some of the dialogue (as I said) made me cringe.

Great write-up my friend. I'm sorry I don't like it as much as you. I am disappointed because between about 2000 and 2005 it was one of my favourite action films also...

Nick Prigge said...

Ah, no worries. None at all. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I, of cours, greatly respect yours. This is just kind of one of those films for which I have an excessive passion and so when someone writes about it I always feel a need to go on the record.

Thanks for reading!

Ricky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ricky said...

I loved this movie as a teenager in the 90s, but now that I've seen some more psychologically satisfying cinema, I have to chalk this one up as excessively two-dimensional. (Even the best noir films had some moral depth; there is none, here.)

There were times when I thought that it was intentionally aspiring to B-movie status. Consider the scene where Sean Bean inadvertently spills the ... coffee by drawing a poor plan on the whiteboard. Think about how obvious this scene is. Anyone with even an elementary understanding of combat tactics wouldn't draw such an obviously wrong tactical plan. If this were a movie about a team of champion spellers, De Niro would have outed Bean for writing "cowch" on the board. The point of this sequence is to show that De Niro is seasoned and knows how to smell bullshit. But it does so in such a hamfisted way that it only insults the viewer for asking it to believe that it would require an expert to debunk Bean's plan. The scene with De Niro and the camera is pretty clever, but why the fuck is the case being moved in the first place? Are they going to dinner and a movie? Wouldn't they just order delivery? And how would the team know that it were moving? Why not hit it then? If it's so endangered that it would require handcuffing, security guards, and a motorcade, why would the carrier (who is obviously not a principal in the story; he's a transport guy) be allowed by any of the security staff to cavort with the ladies in the most dangerous tactical spot in the hotel, the entrance? They should have taken the rear exit. Or maybe they're making a show of it. You know, like a game of "keep-away." When you play keep-away, you have to taunt your opponents, right?

I agree that if you just let it happen, it could be a fun movie. But the attempt at seriousness is what damns it. It's not funny, the emotional connections are not believable (consider the saccharin tenderness between Sam and Vincent, palpable in even the first scene) and in the end, they don't matter.

And the case? Don't get me started. If there's some higher significance about the costs of being a last-ditch hired gun, I'm blind to it. Tarantino made his case a weirdly mystical thing, an object of light-hearted debate among fans of Pulp Fiction. Mamet uses his as a cop-out.