Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Day Ninety-two - Ronin, "Masterless Spies Chase the Ultimate MacGuffin."

There was a phase of Robert De Niro's career in the late nineties/early 2000s where he was taking those "aging action hero" roles like Heat, 15 Minutes, and The Score. In every instance he particularly personified that sort of "two-days to retirement" kind of grizzled cop/criminal who was just trying to make it through one last job before his luck runs out.

That's definitely the case again here with Ronin.

The film opens on a cafe that De Niro's character, Sam, is casing before he goes inside. Within are quite a few suspicious looking characters including Jean Reno, Skip Sudduth, and Natascha McElhone. In short order, we see evidence of Sam's trade and tradecraft, making sure the situation he is walking into is tipped a little bit in his balance.

It's brilliant, subtle exposition with barely a wasted action or line.

After a brief moment of tension, the scene shifts to the warehouse home base for the first act and we're introduced to the rest of the caper's players, Sean Bean and Stellan Skarsgård.

I really like the ensemble that director John Frankenheimer has assembled here. These are all great character actors (with the exception of maybe Skip Sudduth who isn't terrible, but doesn't really have presence) from across Europe and America.

Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgård particularly make me happy. Both can play either the menacing outsider or the affable friend with pretty much the flick of a switch and it's great to see both of them slipping in to their roles.

I was a little disappointed that Sean Bean ducks out after the first act, but what he was there for was great and heavy on the smarm.

The one pick that didn't quite gel for me was Natascha McElhone. She's a fine actress, and a singular beauty to boot, but she never really fits either as the team's nominal leader/organizer or chemistry-wise with De Niro (the two of them get sloppy makeouts in act two and the conflict between them in act three is key). There definitely should have been someone else in that role, but no sense crying over spilled whiskey.

Wait... I always cry over spilled whiskey.

Anyway, Ronin is a great example of a MacGuffin driven plot. All of these mercenaries are after one thing... a silver case. No one knows or cares what's inside of it save the team's mysterious backer (Jonathan Pryce) and their competitors. The entire film revolves around capturing, keeping, and selling the case... and it changes hands quite a few times over the course of the movie.

While the gunplay is a little outmoded (I can't help but laugh at the blood squibs nowadays), Ronin also features one of the greatest car chases ever put to film. While the second act chase through Nice is alright, the third act Paris pursuit puts most other sequences to shame. Michael Bay wishes he could create dynamic chase sequences like this (so much so that he almost recreates them in The Island and Transformers... at least, in my opinion). The only examples I have that are better are in Bourne and Bond films.

There's also a great cameo by Michael Lonsdale, whom most Americans would probably only know from Moonraker as the villainous Drax. While the movie could have done without his history lesson the meaning behind the film's title "Ronin," it's a well done bit of exposition that cuts to the heart of De Niro's character and is a knowing wink at the third act twist.

Plus, any Western film that presents Japanese Folklore and History fairly straight without the ham and cheese of ignorance and nose-tilting gets my vote 100%.

If you like taut caper films with just the right amount of violence versus intrique, Ronin is probably a great film to check out. Just be warned that, on Netflix, the French and Russian subtitles are missing and there are several key scenes that aren't in English. You'll either have to know the languages, rely on context cues, or flip the closed captioning switch in Netflix's options to get the dialogue. 

Until tomorrow, Potatoes~ 

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