RONIN (1998) **
Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz. Sory by Zeik. Photography, Robert Fraisse. Editing Tony Gibbs. Production design, Michael Z. Hanan. Music, Elia Cmiral. Produced by Frank Mancuso, Jr.. Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natascha McElhone (Deirdre), Stellan Skarsgard (Gregor), Sean Bean (Spence), Skipp Sudduth (Larry), Michael Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre),Jonathan Pryce (Seamus), et al. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release. 121 minutes. R (violence, self-surgery)
If you're reading this, the first thing that catches your eye is the ** rating. It is sadly low for those who, like me, know and appreciate much of John Frankenheimer's "oeuvre."
Frankenheimer (now 68) was big in the 1960s, with a succession of notable, often great movies including Birdman of Alcatraz; the political, paranoid cult-thriller The Manchurian Candidate; the political conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May; the WWII Resistance adventure The Train; the affecting melodrama of skydivers, The Gypsy Moths; the haunting, chilling, humanistic sci-fi Seconds, and arguably the best film starring Rock Hudson.
By the 1970s Frankenheimer had crested but still made some gems: The Iceman Cometh; the sequel French Connection II -- which my minority opinion rates above the original French Connection; Black Sunday, a suspenseful, intelligent entry in the terrorist sub-genre. Then came a decidedly mixed bag, although when Frankenheimer returned to television in the 90s, he did very well with TV features (Andersonville, The Burning Season, George Wallace). On the big screen he stumbled in 1996 with the ludicrous yet campy The Island of Dr. Moreau.
In Ronin he shows an amount of pizazz that would put most younger filmmakers to shame, but he does not add the wisdom, logic and thoughtfulness that ought to come with age and experience. A combination of The Dirty Half-Dozen, Mission Improbable and flicks of older decades, this movie-movie belongs to what might be called "Explosive American Cinema," all action and no substance.
A bunch of mostly older, experienced mercenaries -- the old "motley group" cliché-- is hired by Deidre, a young Irish woman, to recover a case, a metal thing like those used by photographers to carry their cameras in. The (too) atmospheric beginning in a (too) seedy Paris cafe gives no clue as to who is who, what is what, whose orders Deirdre is passing on. This murkiness will prevail throughout the picture. In bits and pieces we get vague crumbs of information about the "motley group" (itself an old cliche), none about anyone's (on all sides) psyches, motivations, and zero about contents of the case. The soldiers of fortune (if this is what they are) are of various nationalities (not all of them clear), individually specialize in this or that, may or may not be renegades or operatives of such outfits as the CIA, the KGB,the IRA...One man handles complicated (and probably not yet invented) computer stuff that tracks cars which whoosh by at the speed of rockets.
"Less is more" is a wise formula, but less can also be less, as here, while "more is more" (overkill, as here, in the action) is always definitely less, a handicap. When the action gets going, man, does it go! Never flagging for a moment, the chasers and the chased (who are also mysterious, undefined types) shoot it up, then shoot some more (both en masse and individually), then yet more, and get involved in triple,quadruple, perhaps even quintuple crosses.
Above all, there are endless car chases that take us from Paris to the Riviera and back. It is painfully clear that Frankenheimer is out to beat all records of vehicular movie pursuits, such as those in Bullitt, among others, and especially in French Connection I which was directed by Willliam Friedkin, the man who in 1985 tried to top himself with To Live and Die in L.A. Here Frankenheimer comes up with a movie in contemporary settings but in the spirit of actioners of past decades.
The South of France, the scene of incredible mayhem, is also shown in a colorful (and genuine) way that ought to make French Tourist Offices recommend that the filmmakers be awarded the Legion of Honor. We go from the Hotel Majestic in Cannes to the Corniche--the sinuous mountain highway by the sea where Princess Grace of Monaco had her fatal accident. (Later, the whizzing within Parisian car tunnels recalls Princess Diana's demise). We go, always with guns and bazookas blazing whilst the cars bounce off civilian property, through villages, Mediterranean resorts, the city of Nice. What happens in the streets of Nice has to be seen to be believed. In fact, the more it is seen the less it is believed. How the chasers and the chased elude each other, how too little and too late the cops are, how so few pursuers, pursued, innocent Nicois and others are killed or maimed, beggars the imagination. But since, already quite early into the movie imagination has been so anesthetized, it plays no role.
The Duels in the Sun continue in the city of Arles (170 miles west of Nice), mostly in the old Roman Arena where the opposing sides, made increasingly confusing, fight it out mano a mano as well as group vs. group. By now Frenchman Jean Reno and American Robert De Niro are pals but still keep their secrets. Somewhere near the return road to Paris, Reno takes his wounded friend to the country house of mysterious (read: illogical and undefined) Michael Lonsdale who is not a doctor, but has all sorts of surgical equipment which he does not know how to use. So De Niro operates on his own self. It's all done with mirrors, literally.
In Paris, more dumbness takes place.How fast the searchers locate the Russian Mafia re-boggles the non-mind, for example), and exploits, coincidences, and more get complicated by a traitor, the Russian Mafia, and an ice-skating show starring "Natacha Kirilova." She is played by the real-life German (made Russian here) Olympic champion Katarina Witt whose gyrations provide the only --and unplanned-- sexy moments of the movie.
After she is shot dead by a sniper (don't ask) and the other side (don't ask either) gets hold of the precious case, AND there is another double-crossing, AND unexplained persons come and go, De Niro gives a 100% unbelievable car chase all over Paris at Mach II speeds, destroying in the process chunks of the city and a fleet of innocent automobiles.
The breathless action is a single-minded series of messes on top of unexplained and inexplicable messes. And we never do find out what's in the case. Think of Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour and the mysterious box that a Korean client brings to a high-class brothel -- but then, Bunuel had a teasing sense of humor and mockery that "Ronin" lacks. The case may be like Alfred Hitchcock's MacGuffins, but "Ronin" is light years away from Hitchcock's clean story lines, his humor and mischievousness, the richness, fascination and humanity of his characters.
A text that opens the movie tells us that in feudal Japan, those masterless samurai who wandered the land and hired themselves out as swords or bandits, were known as Ronin. Later there is some verbal elaboration of the legend (from fact) of "The Loyal 47 Ronin" which was made into a filmic two-part classic (1941, 1942) by Kenji Mizoguchi. But "Ronin" hardly fits those references.
Frankenheimer's movie is another case of the desperate attempts to find something to replace the Cold War duels that sustained action flicks over decades. There's no doubt that "Ronin" has excellent technical values and great photography, that its performers are mostly striking within the limitations of their one-dimensional roles. But the human side is absent, the dialogue minimal and unrevealing, the entire thing a mindless tour-de-force. Its writer J.D.Zeik is a first-timer. David Mamet was called in as script doctor and rewrote most of the scenario as "Richard Weisz." Doctor Mamet should have healed himself.