Thursday, July 28, 2005

Movies That Kick Ass
Today's pick: Ronin

This is the first in a series about movies that might not have gotten a lot of media attention when they came out, or did much business at the box office, but kick serious ass nonetheless. Be warned, there are mild spoilers, but I'll try to keep as much under my hat as I can.

Ronin stars Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose best movie was the original The Manchurian Candidate, but Ronin is a close second. Written by J.D. Zeik and massively script-doctored by the great David Mamet.

Much was made of The Bourne Identity's gritty, no-frills, 70's style, but I think that film owes a debt to Ronin, as the earlier film (1998) nailed that style, and was no doubt an inspiration for Bourne's director, Doug Liman. Ronin made just over $40 million domestically, but has become a cult hit on DVD - it was one of the first DVD releases, and many enthusiasts snapped it up to showcase their new home theater setups. The plot starts out simply enough - a group of mercenaries are hired to steal a well-guarded and valuable case. It's clear from the beginning, though, that these mercenaries are not just random thugs, and pretty soon everybody's motives are in question.

A thoughtful, compelling thriller, Ronin has many strengths, the most obvious being the car chases in the second and third acts. The filmmakers had the idea of putting the actors in the cars while the stunt drivers did their thing from the passenger seat, which allows for some great in-stunt reaction shots, and adds to the believability of the scenes. When a car is power-sliding through a turn and the camera is pointed at DeNiro, you can see the effects of the G-forces pulling at him, as well as the slight fear in his eyes. The second car chase, which involves going the wrong way down a freeway, benefits from some judicious editing and remarkable choreography. McElhone's expressions as she 'drives' her vehicle through oncoming traffic are priceless.

Another strength is the dialogue, which couldn't be more obviously David Mamet despite the Writer's Guild demand that the writer of the first draft, J.D. Zeik, got first billing.

Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you.
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I don't remember. That's the second thing they teach you.

Spence: You ever kill anybody?
Sam: I hurt somebody's feelings once.

Tough-guy dialogue to be sure, but to the point and always keeps the plot moving while building character. Ronin has many quiet moments, and the relationship between DeNiro's character, Sam, and Reno's character, Vincent, is so natural and unaffected that I want to see these two characters in another movie. I know, Ronin only made $40 million, but enough people have seen it on DVD and TBS Superstation that a sequel would make a lot of money. Call it the Austin Powers Syndrome. Anyway, the actors are uniformly excellent, with the exception of Sean Bean, who plays Spence a little too hesitant and inept to be believable.

The underlying theme of the movie isn't revealed until the third act, when DeNiro and Michel Lonsdale have a wonderful discussion about ronin, who were formerly honor-bound samurai who lost their masters and became mercenaries. Unable to live with the shame, they committed ritual suicide. The movie suggests that with the end of the Cold War, many intelligence agents were let go by their countries, no longer needed, and now they roam around from country to country, leaderless and aimless, desperate to have somebody give them missions to complete. These mercenaries are modern ronin, and when we discover at the end that one of them never left their agency, we are left to wonder if he's really telling the whole truth.

Possibly the most powerful aspect of the film is the Ronin theme, which was played with an Armenian doudouk. Haunting and mournful, it evokes a great sense of loneliness, and makes us feel even more sympathetic towards these men of action who have lost their way.

The only real weakness of the film is the climax, which is appropriately low-key, but not particularly logical (how the hell did Reno get to that position in order to make the shot?). Compared to the excitement of the car chases earlier in the film, it's a bit of a letdown, but the denouement makes up for it by hitting the right melancholy note.

If you are a fan of the Bourne movies and haven't yet seen Ronin, go out and rent/buy it. Cut from the same cloth, Ronin won't disappoint, and I hope that someday DeNiro and Reno get the chance to revisit these characters. I know I'll be first in line for those tickets.


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