' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Ronin

Monday, September 24, 2018

Some Drivel On...Ronin

John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” was released into theaters 20 years ago this week, an anniversary nobody but Cinema Romantico is likely to celebrate. But then, likely nobody but me has forced his Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife to take pictures of himself on the staircase of the Rue Drevet in Paris, trying (failing) to re-create a shot from the film’s opening scene (see below). “Ronin” holds a special place in my heart. At the dawn of my cinephilia I still considered cinema predominantly in terms of narrative. I enjoyed films beyond their story aspects, absolutely, but I did not have the toolbox, to borrow a term employed by “Ronin’s” main character, to contextualize such enjoyment. And even if “Ronin” contains a narrative, it is deliberately enigmatic, an excuse not just to string together exemplary exercises in action but to provide a canvas demonstrating control of mood and tone, an aesthetic celebration held by a grim party-planner, where omnipresent yellow Gitanes become emblems of ennui, the imperceptible but impeccable costume design are all earth tones, and even a trip to the South of France is recounted in muted color.

The story, in which a group of professional mercenaries attempt to acquire a mysterious case, is just as unembellished, underlined by the crew’s ringleader Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) explaining the mission upon convening her Ronin in a drab Parisian warehouse. “There are some people who have something we require,” McElhone says in the manner of someone telling you she’s about to turn in for the night, “and we want you to get it from them.” It’s the best line reading in show, and illustrative of the oft-dry dialogue, including myriad pithy wisecracks proffered by Robert DeNiro, whose performance alternates between scowl and smirk.

Sure, there are myriad double and triple crosses to keep the whole thing spinning, but these are more about putting pressure on the worldview of the movie’s main character Sam (DeNiro), no doubt short for samurai, which the opening titles refer to, explaining that Samurais whose masters were killed wandered the land as swords-for-hire – “Such men were called: Ronin.” He might well be a sword for hire, but he’s got principals, or, perhaps more accurately, a code. He’s got a code of preparedness, outlined in the film’s sterling opening sequence, breathlessly relying on mere camera movement, editing, music, and DeNiro’s under-acting to evince a man scoping out the place where he’s supposed to meet the rest of his crew, accounting for every possibility that might go wrong before he enters.

Ah, but enter he does and all throughout there is a push and pull between his covering all the angles and a dash for cash. Consider the tunnel weapons-buying sequence where Sam refuses to go in the foreboding passage. What movie hero wouldn’t run in guns blazing? “I’m getting paid to go,” Vincent (Jean Reno). “It’s that simple.” Not to Sam, however, who hangs back, defying, in a sense, his contract. A later scene finds Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale), a friend of Vincent’s called upon at a dire moment, telling the old story of the 47 Ronin as a (perhaps too blatant) means to try and put Sam’s motivation under the microscope. “There is something outside yourself that has to be served,” explains Jean-Pierre. “And when that need is gone, when belief has died, what are you?” Throughout Sam suggests he might well be something more, though this idea is often limited to the smallest behavioral flourishes, and when he finally gives words to his motivation, the line remains coy, and is recited off camera, maintaining the movie’s understated ethos.

In re-considering “Ronin” for its 20th, I kept thinking about its parallels to Melville’s “Le Samourai.” And in thinking about those parallels, I read as much about “Le Samourai” as I did about “Ronin.” And in reading about “Le Samourai”, I found myself pouring over Senses of Cinema’s citation heavy piece on Melville’s film. And one of the citations was taken from Simon Field’s book about Japanese filmmaker Suzuki Seijun and his influential Yakuza films. “The traditional yakuza hero,” went the citation, “was a critic of a kind, a critic of modern society, a rebel who preferred the ancient warrior code as adopted by gangsters to the cynicism of modern Progress. But he had to pay for his rebellion by dying.” That Sam does not die correlates less to him being the main character than ultimately being a character apart from the traditional yakuza hero, re-wiring his code not as rebellion but as serving something outside himself. If this idea failed to register with me in 1998, it resonates whole-heartedly in 2018. That might be a nod to topicality, but it also evokes how while film itself is finite, films remain alive through our eyes. For 20 years I have been inspired by the glorious cinephilic (sic) kick “Ronin” provides; watching it anew, I just found “Ronin” inspiring.

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