MovieHype00690 – RONIN
If physically pains me that RONIN might turn out to be the last great Robert DeNiro performance, and for that reason alone you should see it, but there is so much more to behold.
“Sophisticated Action” is almost an oxymoron, but if ever the shoe fit, RONIN as sophisticated as an action movie gets. DeNiro is the titular Ronin, though in abstract form. The pre-fade-in explanation tells us that in feudal Japan there were samurai warriors pledged as vassals to their Lords. When a Lord was disgraced his samurai lost all honor and became “Ronin,” destined to wander the country as outlaws or sellswords, never to be able to live down the shame.
I find it particularly poignant that no mention is made how the Lord came to be disgraced. Our western mindset rebels against the very Eastern idea that the samurai should carry the shame of their Lord if they did nothing to earn it. Yet is that not the way the world works?
When we meet DeNiro, as “Sam,” he clearly fits the bill. Who we used to work for we are never told (though perhaps we can guess it was in the CIA realm of espionage), but what is left is a man just trying to make a living, possessing a set of skills rare in this world, but his actions no longer sanctioned, no cause to believe in.
Because of this, Sam hires out his skills, along with several others to what appears to be some sort of IRA group for a job never really explained. This is the way of RONIN, and perhaps the way it really works in that shadowy world: you might never know exactly who you are fighting for, and what you are being hired to do.
In this case it is an actual case the men are hired to grab, a case the Russians want to buy, the Irish want to steal, who knows the seller, and God only knows what's in it. Repeatedly Sam asks his employer “What's in the case?” although it's not for ideological purposes, but to better plan the job.
Along with Sam are Vincent (Jean Reno), the man who can get anything you need quickly. The two develop a friendship that is almost touching. Ever since I came upon Reno in THE PROFESSIONAL I've loved the actor and enjoyed all the movies I've seen him in. Like all great actors he has an understated way of conveying his thoughts merely with his eyes, and what sad mournful eyes they are.
Others hired for the job include Spence (Sean Bean) a brash weapons expert who keeps trying to take command of the group, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), the creepily intense techie, and Larry (Skip Sudduth) as the wheel man.
The five of them come together like strange dogs, sniffing each other out, veiled glances, even more veiled words. Because of Star Power we assume DeNiro's Sam is the best and will be leader, but I like the way the filmmakers bring that on slowly. Sam is perhaps more cautious than any of them, double and triple checking everything, never an ounce of bravado, but filled with a quiet competence that the others soon pick up on.
Nowhere to be found is the James Bondian savoir-faire and effortless grace under pressure. The Jason Bourne super-agent ninja skills are missing as well. In fact, Sam is like no other espionage hero we've ever seen. This facet of his character is revealed in the little things.
For example, after the third or fourth time Sam asks for information the employer has not provided his manhood is questioned, and Sam is accused of being afraid. Rather than deny it or give off a line more suited to Dirty Harry or Steven Segal Sam readily admits to being afraid, of what he doesn't know, of what he does. Sam does this without a moment's shame, and the rather than see him as craven the audience immediately picks up that in the real world it's not all slushy martinis and double entendres. If you aren't scared, you are probably too stupid to be so.
Of course even a movie this sophisticated has to have a love interest, though it's the most understated you're likely to find in a major motion picture. Our Gal Friday takes the form of Natashca McElhone, playing Dierdre. I dare say she's about as sophisticated a leading lady as you can get. In a twist Dierdre is actually in charge, the middleman for the shadowy unseen employer. Dierdre is extraordinarily competent and yet somewhat out of her depth, attempting a job she's not equipped for, either financially or man-power. Natashca McElhone manages to play the role so that we do not think her stupid at what she doesn't know, but instead empathize with how she's trying to pull together something she was never given the tools to complete. You may know of McElhone from such films as SURVIVING PICASSO or THE TRUMAN SHOW, and she always comes across as the epitome of class.
The “romance,” such as it is, comes to us like everything in RONIN, understated. However, because RONIN is clearly not some frothy Romantic Comedy, when it does creep up we are treated to an unexpected thrill.
So far I've managed to make RONIN seem like some artsy European film, heavy on acting and subtle glances, rich in locations and ambiance. It is all that. Yet at its heart RONIN is a superb action movie. Believable action, as much as any action movie can be believed.
The action is supremely intense, with enough bullets flying to satisfy any muscle-head, and two car chases, one of which is perhaps the greatest ever filmed. (EVER!) There is danger at almost every turn, and you never know who to trust, who the bad guy is. Heck: who we think is the bad guy shifts several times, and sometimes back to someone we'd already gone through as a bad guy and discarded.
The lack of information about what's in the case and who is after it does not deter us from enjoying the film, but adds to the suspense, giving the film a tautness that never feels manipulative or fake.
RONIN is the kind of sophisticated (there's that word again) adult movie they just don't make any more. Director John Frankenheimer is best known for THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Many thought his time was up years ago, but for at least one movie he proved them wrong.
At the end of the day RONIN achieves something special, in that it never compromises its film values to go for cheap thrills. It may not have the flash and sizzle of bigger budgeted fare, but it has the kind of credibility a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE could only hope to have.
Truly a work of Art. May one day Sam find his honor again .