Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Last week I dug up a 2000 interview with John Frankenheimer; this week it’s my 1998 review of JF’s Ronin, which just ended a revival at the Grand Illusion Cinema. This review is from Film.com, and I sing the praises of the movie until the end, when I profess disappointment. I don’t remember the disappointment, because my memory has firmly placed this one as a return to form. This is one reason I think it’s interesting to read old reviews.
Midway through Ronin, there’s an isolated scene with Robert De Niro and Natascha McElhone sitting in a parked car, staking out a house. They met a few days before, and are completely focused on the job at hand: retrieving the valuable contents of a certain briefcase. When a car approaches, they lock lips, imitating lovers, until the danger passes. They separate. A few beats go by. Then they turn to each other and kiss again, this time for real.
There’s been no build-up of romantic tension between these two, and there will be no subsequent reference to this interlude. Perhaps this gives a taste of the super-cool tone of Ronin, an action picture that recalls the cold, gray spy movies of the ’60s, as well as the French thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville (the title is a cousin to Melville’s Le Samourai). The ultra-professional mercenary De Niro and a handful of hired guns, all strangers to each other, gather in Paris at the behest of Irishwoman McElhone. She won’t tell them who she works for, nor what the briefcase contains. De Niro reveals nothing about himself, although he does strike up a simpatico mutual respect with a French agent (Jean Reno). He and Reno have a much stronger emotional attachment, in fact, than he has with the Irishwoman.
There’s also a vaguely Eastern European technical guy (Stellan Skarsgard, very droll), a nervous Brit (Sean Bean) who talks too much, and an American driver (Skipp Sudduth). The last fellow is the Star Trek designated victim; we know he’ll get killed off because he’s not an international star. The quest for the case takes them from Paris to Nice to Arles (where a nifty sequence is set in the crumbling old Roman arena, the Place Du Forum d’Arles). The car chases alternate with scenes of cold-hearted professionals doing what cold-hearted professionals do between bursts of action: they sit around and stare at the walls.
You can sense the hand of David Mamet in some of this (he doctored the screenplay under the pseudonym Richard Weisz), in the spareness of the characters and the clipped dialogue. At one point De Niro is shot, and must tell Reno how to pull the bullet out — while he’s doing it. This sado-masochistic comedy scene is one of the movie’s high points: “Don’t take the bullet out unless you got it,” De Niro says through a grimace. This happens at the home of an old contact (Michel Lonsdale). He takes the opportunity to explain the title: the Ronin were samurai whose masters had been killed, and thus were doomed to wander from one hired job to another.
This all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? So why does Ronin feel like a disappointment? Director John Frankenheimer, whose recent work on HBO has won him Emmys, is primed for a comeback. And much of Ronin has the control of a smart, veteran director, who knows how to take time and distance to create mood. The opening scenes, seemingly drained of color, burn like a slow fuse, and Frankenheimer understands the weariness of old warriors out on yet another meaningless job. A car chase through Paris captures the terror of real speed, despite distracting echoes of the death of Princess Diana. And Frankenheimer pulls off a sniper scene at an ice show (complete with Olympic dish Katarina Witt) that invites direct comparison to the brilliant finale of The Manchurian Candidate.
But the starkness of the characters, the deliberate cool of the design, takes a toll. Ronin doesn’t have the clean existential majesty of a film like Le Samourai, with a few too many concessions to popular taste (including a bizarrely inappropriate final burst of narration, which sounds very tacked-on). Thus the characters are never quite as wordlessly fascinating as they’re clearly supposed to be, except for the simmering Natascha McElhone, whose breakthrough role this is. Credit Frankenheimer with a professional job well done — this is a far cry from the hired-gun disaster of The Island of Dr. Moreau — but the old feeling isn’t back just yet.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.