Thursday, November 15, 2018
Maybe it only feels like John Frankenheimer’s RONIN is just about a car chase. That’s what everyone seems to remember about it, after all. It’s actually several chases, just to be more specific, but however many there are it’s the sort of pure action filmmaking you don’t get much anymore, not with this kind of sheer weight, bravado and excellence. But this can’t be the only thing the film is about. It’s now twenty years since I saw RONIN on opening night way back in September ’98 and once I stop thinking about how much time has gone by I still have to deal with what the film really is, beyond the coolness and speeding cars heading directly at the oncoming traffic. I loved the film then not just for the phenomenal action but also the unexpected, no-nonsense energy it provided which was refreshing at the time when it felt like things were always trying to get more heightened up. Instead this was a cool, adult action film with a brisk intelligence that played as strong, confident and totally assured. That stands out even more now, making the rush it provides returning to it all these years later still refreshingly potent.
At the time it felt like something of a comeback for Frankenheimer after the notorious wipeout of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU two years earlier in addition to the various lower profile cable films he directed for much of that decade (some of which, for the record, are pretty damn good) but now it seems like a true last hurrah, which I guess it was. We just didn’t know it then. It’s occurred to me before that when the director died just a few years later in 2002 it was mere weeks after the opening of THE BOURNE IDENTITY, a film that in retrospect seemed to shift the European spy thriller genre into the future. Suddenly, John Frankenheimer was the past. I never like thinking that. But even now RONIN is not a relic but a stripped down, spectacularly assured piece of work, a film that is in many ways ice cold but the feelings are there, they’re just buried way deep down where they have to be. It’s a film I still can’t help but love, for everything it represents cinematically both then and now.
Meeting late one night at a Paris bistro, Sam (Robert De Niro) is one of a team of mercenaries and thieves each with their own skills that include Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and Spence (Sean Bean). They’ve been assembled by a mysterious woman named Deirdre (Natasha McElhone) to retrieve a metallic suitcase, contents unknown. After a series of events tracking and working out the plan during which Sam and Deidre connect, the case is ultimately retrieved but after a double cross which splits the team into separate factions that also involves Deirdre’s handler Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), Sam must join forces with Vincent, the only one of them that he feels he can trust, to figure out why they were betrayed and how the case can be retrieved once again.
Part of me simply wants to say RONIN is awesome and leave it at that. I may as well admit this is the sort of film that holds a place in my head where I can never be too critical of it for reasons I can’t entirely explain. Maybe I just respond to the specific tone, one that gives me a pure rush of cinematic adrenaline in the way it strips the heist movie plotting with a side of espionage down to its essentials, putting all the characterizations into the glances between the people, the allegiance shifts found entirely in the camera moves as it glides along ominously to the next person waiting to strike. In the end it plays as nothing less than an abstract view of the world as seen by its director, a glimpse at what happens when people who are meant to be shadows get thrown together as well as a chance to make the sort of film he was best at while leaving out anything and everything that didn’t need to be there. The ultra-spare plot (story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz; Weisz is actually a pseudonymous David Mamet) is almost staggeringly simple on a surface level yet it still deals with the unavoidable human factor of it all, giving us as little exposition as possible since those details are in the looks, all in the necessity of retrieving that case and anything else is found in between the words. That dialogue is forever enigmatic yet still playful in its murkiness with references to things like a prominently mentioned ‘man in the wheelchair’ who we never meet and people who choose not to admit to the past they share unless forced. Just like the characters, it’s a film that knows you should never reveal too much of yourself by giving any secrets away.
Some of the motivations are a little murky at times and certain plot beats feel either extraneous or confusing but the film is always focused on how the various story points are revealed as much as anything, the way we carefully follow around De Niro’s Sam as he approaches the tiny bistro during the film’s first few minutes, scoping out the area in case he needs to get away. Every shot has something in it and Frankenheimer always knows how to place people in relation to each other, even if it’s sometimes for pure effect, but he loves getting them to share the frame so when he moves in for the close-up, truly isolating the character, it means something. What gets learned during a photo taking charade isn’t as important as the process of it happening and the film is more interested in the improvisation of those beats to get the job done, never cutting to something that it’s decided we don’t need to know. “What’s in the case?” De Niro keeps asking, as if the answer is ever going to matter.
The exterior world of RONIN is a grey, overcast winter in the South of France filled with tourists seemingly everywhere looking to hear about the history around them and it’s all but ignored by the insular reality that the film’s characters share, one where after talking to a person for five seconds, you know all you need to know. There’s a little Jean-Pierre Melville here only much more propulsive and the sparseness might all be a byproduct of the Mamet dialogue anyway, stripping down the necessary information to its essentials while keeping the frame always active, no time for anyone to think too long about what they have to do next. The instant rapport Sam and Vincent develop through a Howard Hawks-style method of sharing cigarettes feels very much like Frankenheimer’s own take on such relationships in understanding how little needs to be said. It’s the best way to tell if somebody is good enough, the way one character set up as a major player in the plot is essentially dismissed from the movie after an unsuccessful test run.
To a certain extent all this feels a little like it’s about the nature of filmmaking itself, with a group of people thrown together to pull off a crazy assignment within a specific timeframe, arguing over what has to get done with all that coffee drinking and waiting around late at night, developing into relationships that are transitory at best. Even the fleeting romance feels like an on set liaison, one where very little is ever said about those inevitable feelings and the possible willingness to walk away from it all that you know deep down will never be acted on. However much the characters talk about needing the money and the honor involved even when there’s a paycheck it feels like the rush of the job is too much to ever leave behind as long as they’re alive. All this goes together with a plot that hangs like smoke in the air, the editing by Tony Gibbs creating a metronome pace always adding to the pure concentration that needs to be maintained and a score by Elia Cmiral which is perfectly attuned to its rhythms, providing the essence of the whatever soul the film is allowed to have. Frankenheimer focuses on the little things, the metallic cups they drink coffee out of, the assassin keeping an ice skating target in its sight during her routine, the dogs guarding Michael Lonsdale’s compound. The incidentals give everything a certain gravity, however stylized it is, along with a shrewd sense of wit that hangs somewhere on the outskirts of every scene, slyly keeping tabs on everything left unspoken.
And those car chases remain truly spectacular and expertly done in their simplicity—they’re ‘just’ car chases, no added elements like the subway of THE FRENCH CONNECTION—as if the director of the legendary GRAND PRIX had been saving up all these ideas for years, waiting for just the right chance to combine the spectacular stunts and energy so he could show the world he still knew how to do this with no CGI or any of that. Frankenheimer gives the whole thing a true pulse that makes us feel like we’re not just watching these chases, we’re locked in the cars with them through every pulse-pounding beat so it all plays with total precision and clarity. It always knows to focus on the details we need to pay attention to, even while cutting to a close-up of some fish in a marketplace right before the oncoming mayhem (there’s a recurring use of fish in some of his films that I wish the director was still around to explain). The story moves to Paris for the second chase late in the film which is especially spectacular going from speeding down those tiny streets to eventually on the wrong way down the motorways with even these cool characters revealing on their faces just how stressed out they’re getting from every near miss and each time it happens feels a little more surprising. To compare it to something like the car chase in William Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which is all about the nightmarish fury of the moment, Frankenheimer goes for more of a studied exhilaration and even a businesslike approach to how furiously paced it all is with the total focus they’re forced into through every single moment upping the intensity to the absolute breaking point. It’s phenomenal action filmmaking.
Those chases as well as the expertly choreographed shootouts contain a surprisingly heavy body count of extras which might cause the film to play even more shocking now than it did then but it adds to the overall feel of a film that clearly doesn’t give a damn about respectability but instead acts as a reminder that this is a cold, blunt world that you can’t walk away from, just as De Niro insists on “no booze” to help with the pain as he helps perform makeshift surgery on himself after being shot. Michael Lonsdale plays the sort of retired mercenary hiding away from the world that you find in these movies, who patiently describes how the miniature figurines he paints represent the 47 Ronin and how people like them are the modern day equivalents, each in some ways waiting for the day when they’ll meet the end they know is coming. De Niro’s Sam doesn’t seem totally convinced by all this introspection and rationalization which itself makes sense since this feels like a film willing to discard what it’s actually about as being too wordy. But in its determination to undercut such a solemn theory the film creates its own honor, its own myth, which is maybe all it really needs.
John Frankenheimer was never a director to shy away from world affairs in his films but if there’s any geopolitical angle at all in the Irish and Russians battling it out for the case it’s dismissed by some radio reports meant to clarify the plot that basically paint them as rogues. Even a few vague hints from the plotting indicate that De Niro’s past CIA connections will insure the case won’t fall into the wrong hands so everything’s going to be ok. Do we really believe that twenty years later? I’m not sure. But this is a film about the for-hire individuals caught in the middle of all that, people without true allegiances who it feels like are the ones Frankenheimer truly understands and the McGuffin of the metal case everyone is after barely matters even as a McGuffin by a certain point. Just the people do, even if it is for revenge or just some basic human connection. Even Katarina Witt playing not herself but the head Russian’s famous ice skater girlfriend, just about the only carefree person in this universe, is potential collateral damage, nothing more. With the exception of a smiling little girl Stellan Skarsgard’s emotionless Gregor aims his gun at in one scene for no reason other than he can, it’s possible there’s not a death in RONIN that anyone would get upset over even when it’s one of the good guys, let alone all those extras caught in the crossfire. It barely feels like the film even has villains; just adversaries.
To Frankenheimer this is a brutal world, which he’s right about, and all you can do is brush it off, face forward. It’s not that he doesn’t value life, he just knows it’s all so random and like Frank Sinatra racing through Madison Square Garden to get to Laurence Harvey on time at the end of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE there’s no stopping it. There’s only so much you can ever do, so much you can ever know. Seeing RONIN back then it occurred to me how the ice skating show climax almost plays like a condensed version of Brian De Palma’s SNAKE EYES, which had opened the month before, only this film gets to the point of loyalty, betrayal and judgement in just a few brisk scenes and the only other thing that matters is what you’re choosing to give up in order to achieve those goals. The old school vibe of the film plays as total professionalism now just as De Niro’s ex-CIA man insists on. There are films you need more from. I don’t need more from RONIN. It’s a film that is exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Everything about Robert De Niro here is razor sharp, right before ANALYZE THIS began to soften him and he still lays out the patter in classic style while playing every action scenes with the sort of total precision it feels like his character insists on. He bounces off his co-stars in a ways that brings a certain rough pleasure to their interchanges, particularly with Natasha McElhone who brings a strength to her mysterious character that never wavers, holding her gaze against the next person asking a question that she refuses to answer. The strong male supporting cast oddly includes several actors who previously played James Bond villains, as well as a few who might just as well have. Jean Reno’s sly humor gives the film what little heart it’s allowed, Stellan Skarsgard is particularly good in the way he gives total inner life to his weariness with slim dialogue that never reveals any of it, Sean Bean’s annoying cockiness that folds in record time as well as the smarmy arrogance displayed by Jonathan Pryce, sharing the screen with De Niro again over a decade after BRAZIL. As the mysterious Jean-Pierre who Vincent brings to wounded Sam to for help, Michael Lonsdale puts so much gravity into every pause and glance, even when asking about a simple plot point, as if he’s waiting for some cosmic shoe to drop and put all doubts to rest before he’s able to wipe whatever horrible things he’s done long ago from his mind.
Of course, you could ask what any film is really about deep down. RONIN is a harsh glass of whiskey downed fast but even if it is merely about a car chase you could still read so much into all those pauses and glances at relationships that will never be completed to find a way to understand the world. Frankenheimer’s 2000 follow-up REINDEER GAMES was his next and last theatrical film (it has its moments, let’s put it that way) followed by the excellent 2002 LBJ biopic PATH TO WAR for HBO. He was set to direct the EXORCIST prequel with Liam Neeson starring after this but dropped out for health reasons then on July 6 of that year following spinal surgery he suffered a stroke and died at the age of 72. What he was as a filmmaker, what he did, what he represented, has never been replaced. More than just a car chase, RONIN is about questions that don’t get answered because that’s not what life is about, whether asking what’s in the case or what’s inside a person and what are they keeping from you. Do we ever know? And does it even matter? Maybe sometimes while trying to figure that out you find yourself in the middle of that car chase going the wrong way because there’s no other choice. And if I revisit RONIN after another twenty years of trying to figure out certain people and viewing certain John Frankenheimer films several dozen more times each, I suspect that feeling will only get stronger. Whatever the answer is, admit it to yourself and no one else ever needs to know. Do what you can with that truth. Accept it and move on. Everything is temporary.