Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Ronin (1998)

After the end of the Cold War (and before the War on Terror was invented), quite a few intelligence operatives of various countries found themselves not just out of a job, and certainly without a pension, with skills that don’t sell too great on the normal job market, and morally adrift, lacking a master (be it in form of an abstract ideal) to do terrible things for. Therefore the film’s title.

Ronin concerns itself with a handful of such men – none of whom know each other from before - hired by people who are most certainly Irish and handle them through a woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone in one of her good performances) to acquire a traditional McGuffin in form of a silver case the IRA can’t afford to buy by violent means.

The place is Paris, and these men are American Sam (Robert De Niro being low-key at a point in his career when he was usually shouting and mugging), Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno being Jean Reno, which is not a complaint), German ex-KGB man Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and extremely nervous former British special forces guy Spence (Sean Bean). The group will not only have to solve a difficult task but do it rather more quickly than sensible. Acquiring the case is of course only the first step in the film’s plot, for there are various betrayals waiting for the characters too. It seems some men even lose the most basic of loyalties when they lose the one thing that excused their violent behaviour in the past.

At the end of his career, having gone through the horrors of trying to get some sort of film out of Marlon “Can’t I just mumble a voice over on a shot of total darkness?” Brando and Val “I want a tree house” Kilmer at their peak levels of asshattery (levels so high the human language has no words to describe them), the great John Frankenheimer struck gold with self-assured brilliance twice in a row with this action and spy film that is also a meditation on the meaning of loyalty in a world that isn’t loyal to anyone as well as a film about getting old while the world changes around one (and a year later with Reindeer Games - at least in that film’s director’s cut). Okay, Ronin’s final five minutes are tying things up a bit too pat, smelling of studio interference, but this is not the sort of ending that actually ruins a film; it just robs its metaphorical level of a little precision and focus.

Ronin’s tale of aging men trying to survive the realization that the things that defined them are either not there anymore or might never have been what they thought they were, and now doing the same pretty terrible things (or in certain cases everything) for their basic survival they could once excuse with their Causes certainly suggests parallels to the director himself. I at least can’t shake the impression that there’s a bit of a self portrait of an aging man who is very good at making a certain type of film that isn’t much en vogue anymore here, but that might be the lure of the pat interpretation calling to me like a Polish mermaid in a weird strip club.

In any case, the film isn’t out to apologize every shitty behaviour by its characters – some of them, certainly Sam and Vincent, still cling to certain values and loyalties that protect them from the complete nihilism of some of the other characters here, something that still accepts the possibility of hope and perhaps even still believes in some sort of moral code. There’s a melancholy surrounding these two as well as the younger Deirdre that seems more clear-headed than mere nostalgia. These are people who have done and seen and survived things that have cost them their illusions but who aren’t willing to see everything they ever believed in as illusions.

Because this isn’t an art house movie but a Frankenheimer flick, these more abstract notions are packaged in a series of car chases, shoot-outs and other action sequences made by a master of that sort of thing, still inventive, clearly directed and rather exciting to watch; and because this is a Frankenheimer film, the action scenes here aren’t just meant to be exciting – though they certainly are that – but also reveal things about characters and relationships the dialogue scenes and the procedural scenes before the storm then don’t need to tell us.

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