Friday, June 3, 2011

Ronin

Most big budget spy films are often cartoonish action fare with an emphasis on spectacle (explosions, gunfights and car chases) and very little intelligence or interesting characters. Aside from the smart, visceral Jason Bourne films, the only mainstream film to credibly mix brains and brawn in the last fifteen years has been Ronin (1998). This is due in large part to the efficient direction of veteran filmmaker John Frankenheimer, a lean, no-nonsense screenplay written by J. D. Zeik and by David Mamet (under the guise of Richard Weisz) and a solid cast featuring the likes of Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, and Sean Bean.

The set-up is this: a group of mercenaries from all over the world assemble in France and are given a mission to steal a briefcase with unknown but what they believe to be very valuable contents inside. The group consists of an American driving expert named Larry (Skipp Sudduth); Spence (Sean Bean), a British weapons man; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), an ex-KGB computer expert; Vincent (Jean Reno), a French equipment man; and Sam (Robert De Niro), a veteran tactician from America. They are in turn briefed by a mysterious Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) who we later learn gets her information from a fellow IRA operative, Seamus O’Rourke (Jonathan Pryce).

Because they are all doing this for money no one trusts each other and there is palpable tension under a façade of bravado, dry humor and professional respect. This is exemplified by great one-liners, like when Spence asks Sam, “You ever kill anybody?” to which he responds dismissively, “I hurt somebody’s feelings once.” I love the scene early on where the newly assembled team sniffs each other out. This is where Mamet’s dialogue shines as the various personalities of the team surface: Spence is the cocky Brit; Sam is the sarcastically evasive American; Vincent is the quietly confident Frenchman; and Gregor is the no-nonsense ex-KGB man.

The first action sequence involves a gun deal that goes sour. What stands out in this scene more than the superbly staged action are the little details, like the look on Sam and Vincent’s faces when they realize that they’re walking into a set-up. Afterwards, Vincent thanks Sam for protecting him and a bond develops between the two men that comes from surviving intense, life and death situations. Their relationship is well-played by the two-actors. I also like that Frankenheimer takes the time to show Sam and his team discussing the plan to steal the case. They talk about tactics and, at one point, Sam and Deirdre scout the target and the team protecting it in order to get an idea of the exact number of opponents, how skilled they are and so on. We see just how clever and experienced Sam is in this scene. We also see that a lot preparation goes into a job like this and one can never be too prepared, especially when they are not given all the information.

The group gets the case but one of their own betrays them and takes off with it. This kick-starts a thrilling cat and mouse game through the streets of Paris as Frankenheimer orchestrates action sequences with the kind of ruthless efficiency that would make Michael Mann green with envy. For the most part, they are realistically depicted. Nobody wastes hundreds of rounds before reloading, the actual battles don’t last long, and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire are killed. Ronin was justly praised for its very exciting car chase sequences. No laws of physics are grossly violated as these guys pursue each other in and around the narrow streets of Nice or through the streets of Paris. You can tell that actual stuntmen drove these cars at high speeds and they were actually crashed, not done later with computer graphics. These sequences work so well not just because they are exciting, well shot and edited, but because they are just as important to the narrative of the film as everything else. They have a purpose as opposed to many other action films where car chases are used as filler to distract the audience from the lack of story, character and so on. It should also be pointed out how cleanly executed these scenes are with refreshingly fluid camera movements so that you get an idea of what his going on and where. There is a nice lack of disorienting hand-held camerawork and these sequences are not hacked to pieces with frenetic editing but done in a way that conveys speed and urgency.

Ronin is also refreshingly free of simple good guy/bad guy roles. They don’t exist in this world because all of the characters are imbued with both of these qualities. For them, this job is strictly business and when it becomes personal that is when mistakes are made. Robert De Niro turns in his last truly great performance to date as the experienced soldier-of-fortune. Like his character in Heat (1995), he’s all business and dedicated to the job at hand and nothing else. He’s ably supported by the always watchable Jean Reno as the steadying hand of the group. He plays the reliable guy so well and exudes a quiet dignity that is fascinating to watch. Frankenheimer wisely plays up the mutual respect between De Niro and Reno’s characters. One wishes that by the film’s conclusion these guys would do another project together, especially as the characters in Ronin.

David Mamet’s lean script reflects the characters it depicts. These are professional soldiers who don’t have time to waste on idle chit-chat. They have been hired to do a job and do it well – that’s what they’re getting paid for. His screenplay also provides a window into the post-Cold War espionage world (as he would also do later on with Spartan). It’s an open market with all sorts of ex-soldiers from all over the world selling their services to the highest bidder. After all, what do career soldiers do in between wars? Mamet only hints at this early on when Vincent laments to Sam about their profession, “Seven fat years and seven lean years.” The “fat years” would seem to refer to the time when these guys were employed by their respective governments and enjoyed all kinds of perks. Now they are in the “lean years” doing jobs purely for money. This exchange also establishes early on the bond that begins to form between these two veteran warriors.

At the heart of Ronin is an intriguing discussion between Sam and Jean Pierre (Michael Lonsdale), Vincent’s former boss and the man who tends to a gunshot wound Sam receives in a skirmish. While resting from impromptu surgery to remove the bullet, Jean Pierre relates to Sam the story of the 47 samurai and the Warrior Code:

“The Forty Seven Ronin, do you know it? Forty-seven samurai whose master was betrayed and killed by another lord. They became ronin, masterless samurai, disgraced by another man’s treachery. For three years they plotted, pretending to be thieves, mercenaries, even madmen (that I didn’t have time to do). And then one night they struck, slipping into the castle of their lord’s betrayer, killing him … The warrior code, the delight in the battle. You understand that, yes? But also something more. You understand there is something outside yourself that has to be served. And when that need is gone, when belief has died, what are you? A man without a master.”
Sam speaks of surviving to retirement even though most of his friends have died before they could achieve it because in their line of work longevity is a rarity, eventually everyone’s luck runs. It’s a topic Mamet would explore in greater detail in films like Spartan (2004), Red Belt (2008), and the television show The Unit.

In 1997, president of United Artists Lindsay Doran met with director John Frankenheimer about a project shortly after she received the screenplay for Ronin. She was a big fan of his films and felt that Ronin was perfectly suited for him: “I’m a supporter of the idea of hiring people who have practically been forgotten. There are an awful lot of filmmakers who stop getting hired when they’re 60 or 55 or even 50.” When Frankenheimer read the script it reminded him of action films from the 1960’s and 1970’s: “What appealed to me too was that it was an intelligent suspense thriller. At heart it’s a film that questions our ethics and the meaning of honor and what it means to ‘do one’s job.’” Doran and United Artists decided to hire Frankenheimer based on his work on Andersonville (1996), television miniseries for TNT in which he won an Emmy for direction.

In terms of camerawork, Frankenheimer eschewed a stylized approach to create what he called a “heightened reality” and achieved this with wide angles and a depth of field. The director hired French cinematographer Robert Fraisse based on his work on the HBO film Citizen X (1995): “I saw that Robert knew how to work within the confines of a schedule, and knew the demands of an American production.” Ronin was shot in a brisk 78 days with an additional 30 days of second-unit work done by Frankenheimer and Fraisse.

For the three car chase sequences, Frankenheimer employed the same techniques he utilized on Grand Prix (1966). According to one of the film’s stunt coordinators and professional race car driver Jean-Claude Lagniez, 150 drivers were used with cars going as fast as 120 miles per hour. Approximately 80 cars were wrecked in scenes where whole sections of Nice and roadways in Paris were temporarily closed down. He and Michael Neugarten were among the drivers hired to do the stunt driving. The director had clearly done his research as both men had won their respective categories at Le Mans the year before. Lagniez said that Frankenheimer insisted the cars during the chases travel at full speed: “If I’m going to do a car chase, I’m going to do a car chase that’s going to make somebody think about whether or not they want to do another one!” The director did some shots with the actors in real cars by using English right-hand drive vehicles. The stunt driver would be actually driving the car and a fake steering wheel on the left would be for the actor. This allowed Frankenheimer to photograph the actors “driving” the cars. The director storyboarded all three chase sequences, generating hundreds of drawings that were used as a guide on location, allowing him to improvise at a given moment if he were so inclined.

A minor controversy broke out brief over screenwriting credit. J.D. Zeik wrote the original script and then David Mamet was brought in to either do a bit of script doctoring or rewrite it completely, depending on who you believe. Frankenheimer claims the latter as he said an interview, “We didn’t shoot a line of Zeik’s script.” Zeik’s attorney claimed that Mamet was brought in at the last minute before principal photography to “beef up De Niro’s role,” added Deirdre as a love interest for Sam and rewrote several scenes. The lawyer claimed that rather than give his client – a then-up and coming screenwriter – sole credit Mamet included his name in order to receive greater residuals. Zeik’s attorney appealed to Mamet’s lawyer to let his client have sole credit but was rebuffed. Mamet tried to apply for sole writing credit but the Writer’s Guild ruled that credit should be given to both Zeik and Mamet. Already burned by the WGA over credit for Wag the Dog (1997), and in protest, Mamet used the pseudonym of Richard Weisz on Ronin. Furthermore, Zeik’s lawyer then accused Frankenheimer of dropping his client “to curry favor with David Mamet.”

Ronin received mixed reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Frankenheimer’s handling of the material: “Here, with a fine cast, he does what is essentially an entertaining exercise. The movie is not really about anything; if it were, it might have really amounted to something, since it comes pretty close anyway.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin raved about the film’s car chases: “Proving that the greatest excitement an action film can offer is the spectacle of real derring-do performed by real people, Mr. Frankenheimer stages three sensational French chase sequences in settings that prove astonishing, under the circumstances … these scenes are nothing short of sensational. Mr. Frankenheimer directs them in fast, efficient, no-frills fashion because no extra frills are needed.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Unvexed by boring details, which usually just compound the implausibility of action movies anyway, we are free to appreciate the sheer stylishness of Ronin. This derives from the counterpoint between Mamet's verbal manner—weary, knowing, elliptical—and director John Frankenheimer's bold visual manner.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “I wish Frankenheimer had done more with Stellan Skarsgard's icy genius sociopath. Ronin is ''well-crafted,'' but it's also empty — a joyless thrill ride … In a movie like this one, speed itself starts out as excitement and ends as desperation — as a race out of the void.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wasn’t nearly as taken with the film: “Despite some ingenious touches, as when Sam and Deirdre pose as tourists to snap photos of their elusive quarry, much of the time Ronin feels like a high-brow Steven Seagal film, with massive gun battles that casually disregard civilian casualties and too many overlong car chases through the twisty streets of Paris and Nice.” New York magazine’s David Denby concurred: “Ronin is well-made, but it's an act of connoisseurship for people who have given up on movies as an art form.”

Frankenheimer and Mamet created a fascinating world of international mercenaries that at once seems realistic and also very cinematic in nature with its exciting car chases and gun battles. The director brought years of experience as an excellent journeyman director to Ronin. He didn’t waste time with needless exposition and showy style. Like the characters in the film, he’s there to get the job done while also delivering an entertaining movie, harkening back to his Classic Hollywood contemporaries like Don Siegel. Ronin would be one of Frankenheimer’s last films (the less said about Reindeer Games the better) and it is a fitting swan song for the man who unfortunately died in 2002.


SOURCES

Harrison, Eric. “Mamet Versus Writers Guild, the Action Thriller Sequel.” Los Angeles Times. August 5, 1988.

Magid, Robert. “Samurai Tactics.” American Cinematographer. October 1998.

Ronin Production Notes. 1998.

Sterngold, James. “At the Movies: High-Speed Espionage.” The New York Times. September 11, 1998.


Weinraub, Bernard. “Thriving on an Atmosphere of No Illusions.” The New York Times. September 13, 1998.

4 comments:

  1. Gosh J.D., I loved this film when I saw it.

    I had no idea of the harsh criticisms of the film, but I agree with your outstanding assessment of the film.

    It's tight, well-cast including DeNiro in one of his finer performances in the last of many years.

    Further, of course, I enjoy Frankenheimer's films. Heck, I even enjoyed the much destroyed remake of The Island Of Dr. Moreau [1996]. It must be the science fiction guy in me, but I did enjoy that film too.

    That case, the mcguffin, really serves to deliver a smart, fun, spy thrill ride. I just really enjoyed the entire cast. That cast for me was like the anti-Ocean's 11. : )

    Enjoyed your coverage of Ronin and all of the back story including the Mamet information of which I was unfamiliar. All the best, sff

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  2. I'm with SFF, loved it from the moment I saw it in the theater! Another outstanding look at a real favorite of mine. So many great things to appreciate about it, and you've covered all of them. I think I've mentioned it before, but Sean Bean's brief role in the film is so adept. The man can do so much with so little. Another spot-on examination, J.D. Thanks.

    p.s., this one was my answer to question 18 in Dennis Cozzalio's most recent movie quiz (which I'll finish sometime over the weekend).

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  3. Great write-up! Ronin still holds up as a killer action movie.

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  4. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Yeah, I was kinda baffled by the criticisms leveled at this film. I don't put much stock in them at all and find this film pretty awesome on every level.

    I too am a big Frankenheimer fan. Hoping to do a write-up on SECONDS in the future but I really can't get behind THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. I tried but that film is such a mess - not Frankenheimer's fault, mind you. He did the best he could with what he was given.

    Thank you for the kind words and, as always, for stopping by.


    le0pard13:

    Yeah, I have fond memories of seeing this on the big screen and enjoying every minute of it.

    I'm glad you mentioned Sean Bean. Big fan of his and even though his character is a spineless wuss, it was pretty cool seeing him mix it up with the likes of De Niro and Reno.


    Ty:

    I couldn't agree more! Thanks for stopping by.

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