There are two Robert De Niros. There is the embarrassing goon who mugs for the camera, who shows absolutely no discernible taste or talent while subjecting us to cinematic swamp gas like Analyze That, 15 Minutes, and Meet the (fucking) Fockers. Then there is the other De Niro, the one most of us fell in love with at some point. The one whose name we were once excited to see attached to a project. The De Niro of The Godfather Part II, Cop Land, Heat, even Jackie Brown. The De Niro whose performances are subtle, intelligent characterizations instead of shameless, cartoonish (I’m looking at you, Rocky and Bullwinkle!) caricatures. Thankfully, Ronin stars the latter De Niro. Sadly, it’s a De Niro we’ve rarely seen since.
Similarly, there were two John Frankenheimers (before his unfortunate demise) — there was the classic film maker, the man whose camera work became legendary and inspirational to younger directors. He was responsible for densely plotted and shrewdly directed films (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train) — but alas, towards the end there was a noticeable decline in his films, culminating (or perhaps bottoming out) with the dreadful Reindeer Games which was depressingly his last theatrical release (a grim final legacy exceeded only by Raul Julia and Street Fighter). Ronin is unquestionably the last great film he gave us.
In Ronin, Robert De Niro plays Sam, an out-of-work spy and Cold War orphan - one of the apparently numerous agents of intrigue and nefarious purpose left with no direction after the fall. He and a half dozen other former operatives are recruited by the enigmatic and seriously trust-impaired Deirdre (Natasha McElhone) to retrieve a briefcase, by force, from an unnamed party intent on selling said case to Russian agents. As with films like Pulp Fiction and Sneakers, the briefcase is a simple MacGuffin - it’s contents are irrelevant. The plot of Ronin is brutally simple - Men are hired to steal the case. One of them betrays the rest. Men track down the traitor, lose him and the case, catch him and lose him, and eventually there’s a big reveal and… the end. In lesser hands, we’d have ended up with another derivative snoozer that takes all the clichés and gives us nothing in return. However, Frankenheimer succeeds in taking a conventionalized idea and executing it perfectly. Of course, the cast helps — just like the workmanlike professionals they portray, the actors in Ronin are skilled, deliberate and for the most part devoid of pretense. Each character serves a crucial role, carefully handpicked by Deirdre’s intermediary; there’s the wheelman Larry (Skipp Sudduth), the self-nominated “weapons man” Spence (Sean Bean, in a limited, but excellent-as-usual performance), Vincent (the always-enjoyable Jean Reno), the self proclaimed “tour guide” and Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), the electronics expert. Rounding out the cast is the aforementioned McElhone, as well as Jonathan Pryce as Seamus, Deirdre’s handler, and a short-but-sweet role for French actor Michael Lonsdale as Vincent’s friend who helps patch one of the group up after a particularly nasty gunfight.
The title, Ronin, is taken from the Japanese term for masterless samurai, men who lost their master and would seek out combat for money instead of the usual dutiful honor. As such, the characters reflect this work ethic. These are neither the Jason Bournes nor the Ethan Hunts and James Bonds of the world. Instead, their personae are far more grounded, with less emphasis on martial arts and super-soldier silliness and more on caution, planning and economical execution. Sam, Vincent and their compatriots are tired, worn-out men; quiet veterans from a decades-long war that, to them, ended without climax or fanfare. If you’ve read Robert Littell’s excellent fictionalized history of the C.I.A., “The Company,” think Harvey Torriti left without purpose or prospects. They are not looking for a way out, nor are they looking to retire — they’re simply looking for something to do. Given their skill sets, that something is likely to involve subterfuge and violence.
Written by J.D. Zeik and with a screenplay by David Mamet (who apparently did most of the writing, but is listed under the pseudonym “Richard Weisz”), Ronin is the ultimate example of sparse, austere screenwriting. Every second of the film seems loaded with focus and purpose, as if the film makers were loathe to include any shots even remotely superfluous. As is sometimes the case when David Mamet is involved, either by pen or by lens, a Spartan feeling pervades the film (not to mention its rare dry, sharp humor) . Despite the exotic locales used for filming (Paris, Nice, Arles), other than some gorgeous wide landscape shots, the direction and cinematography is still frequently harsh and unyielding, focusing on tight, narrow angles in dark alleys and cramped cobbled streets. It’s interesting that this grim work ethic suffuses the film — not just the motivations and ethics of the characters themselves, but also the acting, the direction and cinematography all reflect a similar frame of mind. The refuges that they hole up in as they travel through the film are stark, dank places — run-down motels and abandoned warehouses filled with military cots and coffee in tin cups. Their lives are actually pretty drab, but when the call to action is sounded, they are fast, efficient, and frequently brutal. Interestingly, there’s a brief, random sex scene that, the first time I saw the film, felt tacked on and uncalled for. But after seeing it a couple of times, I came to realize that these are, at their core, soldiers. The rule for soldiers has always been that you take what you can when you have the time to take it. Whether it’s eating, sleeping, using the bathroom, and yes, even sex — it’s yet another example of world-weary lives still functioning with machine-like efficiency.
Ronin is an excellent combination of slow buildup and big payoffs. The bulk of the film is devoted to the plotting and machinations of the various groups, each trying to out-think the other. As such, there’s a nervous tension throughout the film — these severe and cautious machinations create a miasma of paranoia that is almost palpable. De Niro is particularly effective — constantly asking questions and threatening to back out if he can’t be certain of the logistics or if he feels they’re being left in the dark. At the other end, McElhone has to carefully balance what is essentially a crew of spies and killers, while still playing her hand as close to the vest as possible. When De Niro finally snaps and demands, “If it’s gonna be a amateur night, I want a hundred thousand dollars. I want it upfront. I want it in a bank account, and I want another $100,000 when you get the case,” it’s with a combination of frustration and desperation that creates a great bit of tension in the film.
All of these schemes and plots lead to the aforementioned payoffs, including a taut, frenetic clusterfuck of a gun battle in an ancient coliseum, and the infamous car chase. Ronin has one of the most impressive car chases ever filmed, one that I feel is frequently left out of the “great car chase” discussion. It’s a lengthy, gripping affair, spanning gorgeous countrysides and claustrophobic alleys with equal recklessness, not to mention the requisite gun fire and explosions. Yet it lacks the CGI whiz-bang of a lot of its contemporaries, instead opting for a grittier, more intense feel created through road-mounted cameras capturing skidding tires and harrowing in-vehicle camera work. In one more thing that separates it from the pack of spy thrillers, there’s little emphasis on tech. Technology certainly plays a vital role — there’s an entire scene devoted to the group discussing cars, guns, and electronic gadgetry — but it’s not the superspy comic bookish type of Mission Impossible gear. In fact, there’s a greater emphasis on simplicity and reliability, avoiding the unrealistic gewgaws that are found in most spy flicks. Frequently they simply improvise to accomplish a task… Jason Bourne had a rolled up magazine, Sam has a cup of coffee. It’s perfectly summarized when the stoic Sam plainly states, “It’s just a tool box. You pick the tool for the job.”
As with the rest of the movie, there’s no wise-cracking, no showboating, no jokes at the moment of resolution. In fact, it’s for this very reason that one of the crew is so quickly recognized as a poseur, a wannabe who’s more likely to get them killed than be any kind of asset. These are workers, soldiers with no room for flash or style points, and it’s the type of movie that only a special kind of director can handle. In fact, Ronin is a relatively humorless picture; other than the occasional dry riposte, the only thing resembling comic relief coming from the always-wonderful Jean Renos. Yet his is a wry, tired humor, as if he realizes the dour surrounding and halfheartedly attempts to brighten it. If there is a weak performance to be found, it’s probably Skarsgård, who while trying his very best and probably fighting against his nature, still manages to ham-fist his way through a couple of scenes. However, he’s still mostly fine, and pointing it out is just me being persnickety. Sean Bean is brilliant as the high-strung, squirrelly x-factor and the rest of the cast is equally solid. However, De Niro truly is the standout — his Sam is a cunning, deliberate veteran, a cagey antihero who stays alive by seeing all the angles. It’s the De Niro we wish we could see in all of his films.
Ronin sometimes feels like it’s a little overlooked in the spy film canon, a situation that needs immediate remedying. While I certainly enjoy the non-stop ass-kickery of the Bourne films, and enjoyed the kabooms and gizmos of the Mission Impossibles (not MI:2, which is a goddamn blight on that series and on film in general), sometimes they seem a bit much. However, if you want a break from the overblown and overwrought, from the pyrotechnics and shaky-cams, and instead want something a bit more subtle and contemplative, Ronin will fill that need. I can’t say that I know anything about the spy game, but if I had to imagine what their capers were really like, I’d hazard that it’s more akin to the dark rooms and cunning, calculated connivances of this excellent film.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.
Ronin / TK
Pajiba Blockbusters | August 29, 2008 | Comments ()