Monday, August 29, 2016
(September 1998, U.S.)
I have, in previous blog posts, described how the late John Frankenheimer was a hit-and-miss director with me. My favorite thriller of all time, BLACK SUNDAY (1977) was one of his and there's no denying the greatness of other films like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) and GRAND PRIX (1966), as well as some of his television work. There's also no denying the disappointment of duds like PROPHECY (1979), 52 PICK UP (1986) and his screen swan-song REINDEER GAMES (2000). RONIN certainly more-than-compensated for his previous disastrous screen remake of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996) and even made up for what I considered to be, at best, a mediocre time at the movies during the summer of 1998. September is a month where you start to expect films to get better just in time for the fall Oscar considerations and also a time when the summer crowds have thinned out, making a time at the local movie theater or multiplex just a little easier to deal with.
So once again, like PULP FICTION, the film centers on a mysterious briefcase, its contents unknown to us, and a team of hired ex-special operatives who are trying to steal it under very heavy guard, all the while navigating through a maze of shifting alliances and loyalties. This team consists of mercenaries we only come to know by first name including the American Sam (played by Robert DeNiro), the Frenchman Vincent (played by Jean Reno), the German Gregor (played by Stellan Skarsgård) and the Irishman Spence (played by Sean Bean), who are also challenged against the Russian mob, also bidding on the mysterious briefcase. During a gun battle in Nice, France, Gregor betrays the team by stealing the case and then trying to sell it to the Russians, but is forced to kill his contact when he betrays him. The rest of the team are now forced to track down Gregor, the case and their enemies at large in order to fulfill their mission and stay alive; and of course, the price for their services just went up in light of too many recent and deadly developments. In a strange form of prerequisite, this team is not too unlike the men we meet in Sylvester Stallone's films of THE EXPENDABLES, though with a lot less gun violence and explosions, and of course, much better acting. This film also includes the best and most authentic and lengthy car chase scenes through the streets of Nice and Paris that I've ever seen on film since Gene Hackman in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and Roy Scheider in THE SEVEN-UPS (1973). There is also noteworthy shot-by-shot and Steadicam cinematography at work here that rivals the most impressive technical feat that any computer generated imagery could pull off.
As with any tale of spies and espionage, we are destined to keep our eyes and ears open to see who is for real and who will betray us. Throughout RONIN, we are taken on a journey of not only action and thrills, but to also discover who is not exactly who they say they are. Sam we sense is a good and honorable man who is part of this mission for reasons greater than money, but rather of loyalty and to pay the penance of a past failure against one who trusted him; not too unlike an 18th-century historical event and legend in Japan in which a band of leaderless samurai (rōnin) sought to avenge the death of their master, as it is told by the character played by Michael Lonsdale (think Drax in MOONRAKER!). Like so many other thrillers of various tales, we can't help but take pleasure in being permitted to be let in on the entire saga of unexpected danger and treachery. In the end, also like PULP FICTION, we never find out what was in the case, though we've had a great time trying to guess ourselves and watch everyone else on the screen live and die for the same purpose and knowledge.
For myself, RONIN is the best film of Frankenheimer's since BLACK SUNDAY, which I suppose, leaves little room for me for any sort of genuine appreciation in between all those years, though I give him strong credit as a filmmaker for his 1997 film of GEORGE WALLACE on TNT and his 2002 film of Lyndon B. Johnson in PATH TO WAR on HBO. Unfortunately for me, REINDEER GAMES as his final theatrical film was a true disappointment. Like I've previously said, the man was hit-and-miss with me.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Spence: "You ever kill anybody?"
Sam: "I hurt somebody's feelings once."