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Non-Review Review: Ronin

Ronin is the perfect example of a movie that knows exactly what it is. It’s a high-octane thriller which bends and curves and uncertainties and all manner of similar complications. There’s no tangential elements to the plot, like an awkwardly-inserted love-story or an attempt to humanise any of the people involved. It’s just a well-made thriller with fantastic locations and wonderfully-staged action. At one stage, the grizzled French mercenary Vincent remarks, “No questions, no answers. That’s the business we’re in.” It’s refreshing and honest, and frank.

DeNiro's the big gun here...

I remember some surprise when I discovered that David Mamet wrote the screenplay to the film – pretty much the same reaction when I discovered that Tom Stoppard contributed to The Bourne Ultimatum. I’m not going to say anything vulgar like “a film like this is a waste of his talent” – it isn’t. Mamet is a fantastic writer, and this is a fantastic film. There are hints of him in the dialogue that I pick up in retrospect, but I never would have suspected his hand in it without knowing it. It just demonstrates the writer’s range. Ronin is perhaps one of the best produced thrillers of the nineties – and that was a very strong decade for thrillers.

The movie is tough and economical, like its lead characters assembled for a tough mission. Watching it, it’s fantastic how director John Frankenheimer managed to assemble such a talented international group of actors. Robert deNiro is the lead, but he’s supported by people like Skipp Suddith, Sean Bean, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Michael Lonsdale and Jonathan Pryce. None of those names might jump off the page at you, but it’s a cast filmed with gems to those familiar with their cult actors. Hell, with a script by Mamet, you could probably act this film out on a stage and you’d still be on for a winner.

A model action film?

Then, of course, you’d lose the movie’s two superb car chase set pieces. You could possibly try to incorporate them into the act, but it’s probably against safety regulations. Anyway, Frankenheimer handles the movie with precision and skill. His direction is just as economical as Mamet’s dialogue. Sure, scenes like the chases or the tense confrontations are effective, but they’re never overplayed. The film has superb stunt work or choreography, but it never feels like you’re watching for the stuntwork or the choreography. Like the characters who inhabit this seedy and violent world, the movie is understated by powerful.

It’s also economical. There are no long monologues. Nobody asserts themselves as a bad ass – well, except those who talk the talk because they can’t walk the walk. Personal questions are answered with humorous deflections. “So, how’d you get started in this business?” Sam asks his companion Deirdre during a routine stakeout. “A wealthy scoundrel seduced and betrayed me,” she mockingly replied. This is a high-stakes game of poker, where you keep your cards close to your chest and try to avoid showing more than you need to.

The movie is similarly earnest. It doesn’t draw itself out or offer cheap tricks to establish a connection with the audience. There’s no real back story expressly stated, though you can piece together bits and pieces. The film is honest in that regard – people who survive in this line of work aren’t the typical movie protagonists, and it’s appropriate that they don’t act as such. The movie is honest about it – it just goes about its business.

That's one tough crowd...

The movie follows a crack team of mercenaries hired to track down and recover a mysterious case that various parties are eager to get their hands on. We never find out what’s inside, like in Pulp Fiction. The movie is honest enough to concede that the case is a plot device for the leads to wrestle over – as Hitchcock would describe it, a “MacGuffin.” We don’t need to know what’s on the inside, because that’s no concern of the characters in the film (well, at least not the major ones). They’re just professionals doing a job. Adding an explanation for the device would merely serve to dilute and pad the story.

At the same time, the movie manages to say a lot by saying nothing. There’s a sense that this international community of hired guns is a small, but disconnected group – both understandable facets for a bunch of people who deal in death and destruction. “Where do I know you from?” an assassin asks Vincent, preparing to execute him. Vincent thinks for a moment before replying, “Vienna.” We never find out what they did in Vienna, but we know their paths crossed – not close enough to remember particularly well, but not so far as to be completely anonymous.

I do have one minor quibble with the film – and it’s only a small one, perhaps particular to my own background. A news report at the end of the film, ties the movie’s climax to the Northern Irish peace process – when this has no basis in fact. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against good movies toying with history where appropriate, but it just seems strange in the context of the film. The entire principle of the film is that these men are trained to be entirely anonymous and that they can’t even see their own roles in big events, but here they manage to have an absolutely massive impact on the course of global events. It feels a little strange, and quite out of place with the rest of the film. That said, perhaps to foreign audiences, Northern Ireland doesn’t really feel like that big a global event. Though, I suppose it’s fitting that the movie ends with the resolution of a conflict that will create even more “ronin” or “masterless soldiers.”

Just enjoy the ride...

Ronin is a superb action film, one of the best examples of the genre I can think of. Part of it is the fact that it is so very honest about its status, but there’s also the fact that the talent involved is so darn stellar. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s well worth your time.

2 Responses

  1. Dude, I still smile thinking about the first time I saw this on a whim. Car chases don’t get much better than Ronin, big fan of this one and I love pretty much anything that has Jean Reno in it. Great review, man.

    • Thanks Aidan. I think Ronin is on the short list of “truly great movies very few people have bothered seeing.”

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