Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ronin (1998)

Director: John Frankenheimer                        Writers: J.D. Zeik & David Mamet
Film Score: Elia Cmiral                                 Cinematography: Robert Fraisse
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård and Natascha McElhone

Ronin is a European caper film by the great John Frankenheimer. It has an all-star international cast and is distinctive in its use of French cinematographer Robert Fraisse. In the days before digital manipulation of images, color pallets had to be adjusted in the camera. The film stock and exposures that Fraisse used were designed specifically to give the film the kind of muted colors seen in many films today. The film also has an interesting premise with a mystery woman hiring a group of mercenaries to pull a job in Paris, but gives them almost no information about who she is and what’s in the box they have to steal. The title comes from the Japanese samurai culture in which a warrior without a master is called a ronin and must wander the countryside and hire himself out as a mercenary, and the ex government agents in the film all fit that description.

The film begins with the Irish Natascha McElhone running an operation in Paris to retrieve a case from some men whom she calls, “very unpleasant.” She’s hired five professionals. Jean Reno is the Frenchman who is in charge of getting the supplies they need, guns, cars, etc. Stellan Skarsgård is the computer man, Sean Bean is the ex-military weapons expert, Skipp Sudduth is the driver, and Robert DeNiro is the mystery man. He asks all the questions but gets few answers. When they go to pick up the guns that Reno has ordered, they run into an ambush that DeNiro spots right away, and despite Bean’s braggadocio, he winds up throwing up afterward. That’s all DeNiro needs. He confronts Bean when they get back, demands more money from McElhone, and gets Bean fired. But something still isn’t right and it will bother DeNiro until the end of the film.

The biggest question is why McElhone won’t divulge who the target is and what is in the case. The only member of the team that he really bonds with is Jean Reno, who seems to go out of his way to make DeNiro feel more secure. And it works. But when the heist goes down they are betrayed, and to make matters worse it seems that someone else wants the case too. Jonathan Pryce is the mystery man who will stop at nothing to get the case. Add to that the Russians who want it too, and it gets complicated. John Frankenheimer is hit and miss as a director, and for all of the effort that went into the European local, he doesn’t really pull this one off. There’s a sterility here that you don’t see in something like a Luc Besson film. Technically, there are some fascinating shots, close-ups and deep focus that look terrific, especially in the beginning of the film. Later on the film shifts to car chases and hit men and is equally adept with some fantastic looking action sequences. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to disguise the film’s considerable weaknesses.

The biggest problem is with the script by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet. In trying to play cute with the audience, they simply end up alienating them. They take the idea of Hitchcock’s McGuffin and pervert it to the extent that instead of propelling the plot forward it leaves the audience feeling duped. As a result, what is nearly a taut political thriller becomes a little too vacuous to be satisfying. Still, the acting is solid. DeNiro and Reno are terrific together, and the supporting cast is equal to the task. Sean Bean in particular does a great job as the nervous imposter, trying to play tough but lacking the skills to go the distance. An impossibly young Stellan Skarsgård is steely and determined as the tech guy, while the vastly underrated Jonathan Pryce shows the kind of grit and determination that should have had him playing these types of parts all along. There is a lot to like about this film. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to outweigh the bad. Ronin is popular film for the car chases, but be forewarned that the ending is a big disappointment.

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