Thursday, August 30, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Ronin (1998) ***½

R, 122 min.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: J.D. Zeik, Richard Weisz
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Skipp Sudduth, Sean Bean, Michael Lonsdale, Jan Triska, Jonathan Pryce, Katarina Witt

“Ronin” is a movie that impressed me greatly when I originally saw it in theaters. It seemed destined to go down as an action classic, but it was out of its time. It seems to have faded from most people’s memory. I think that’s because it was a movie born in the 70s that didn’t get made until the 90s.

I don’t mean that it was conceived in the 70s. I mean it is drenched in the filmmaking philosophies of the 70s. It has this notion that its audience is intelligent and doesn’t need everything spelled out for them. It doesn’t assume that Americans can’t stand to see a true foreign world. This movie is European to its core. It even incorporates Eastern philosophies without blatantly flogging them for its Western story.

I don’t know much about J.D. Zeik, the man who conceived of the story and holds the first screenwriting credit. It’s about the only notable credit he holds of four credits on IMDb. I do know, however, that Richard Weisz is a pen name for American playwright and screenwriter David Mamet. Knowing that is the equivalent of hitting yourself in the forehead and saying, “Now, that makes sense.”

The director is the great John Frankenheimer, who knows more than a little bit about making great thrillers. His original “The Manchurian Candidate” is possibly the best thriller of all time. Here he is like watching an old master doing it without looking like he’s even breathing hard. His central thrill delivery system here is a series of car chases through city streets and country roads. The car chase sequences are some of the best in cinematic history.

And what of the plot? Well, the plot isn’t really the point. Not that it isn’t good, but the whole thing is basically one big MacGuffin, as is often the best case for a good thriller. The cast is like winning the international actor’s lottery. Robert De Niro was in the middle of one of his subtler phases. Jean Reno was at the peak of his fame, having just come off De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible”. Natascha McElhone was enjoying one of Hollywood’s obsessive periods with Ireland. This was one of the first movies I remembered Stellan Skarsgård from, having made his first major waves just two years prior in the Dogma film “Breaking the Waves”. Skarsgård is still going strong today, having just played a key role in the smash summer blockbuster “The Avengers”.

“Ronin” is a movie we’d do well not to forget. I suppose it doesn’t really do anything that hadn’t been done before cinematically, but it did it so well.


Emily Caswell said...

I really enjoyed this movie. Especially the car chases.

Andrew Wells said...

Some of the best in cinema in my opinion.

t-rocc said...

man i loved this movie but you're right, it's kind of forgotten... i need to bust it out again. great writeup man, love the way you tackle the acting lineup

Andrew Wells said...

It's available for instant streaming on Netflix.