Screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz. Directed by John Frankenheimer. 1998
Director John Frankenheimer managed to coax a convincing acting job out of Rock Hudson (Seconds) and was responsible for one of Frank Sinatra's best performances (The Manchurian Candidate). With Robert DeNiro as his protagonist in Ronin, he did not have to worry about acting ability. What he did have to worry about was J.D. Zeik's script (based on a story by Zeik). Enter script doctor Richard Weisz, aka David Mamet, who rewrote the one hundred twenty-minute screenplay "from the ground up."
Ronin contains elements of The Untouchables, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and The Edge, but it is neither as accomplished as The Verdict nor as subtle as Things Change. It is filled with action and plot twists; it lacks Mamet's usual dialogue phrasing and philosophical underpinning.
Set in France (Paris, Nice, Cote d'Azur, Cannes), the film overflows with gorgeous scenery, perhaps more interesting than any since To Catch a Thief. The story is a simple one. The movie is about modern-day ronin hired by Irish terrorists to hijack a silver-colored metal case which is shackled to the wrist of its guardian, who in turn is guarded by another set of ronin. As we are reminded in an introductory scroll, during feudal times in Japan, "the warrior class of samurai were sworn to protect their liege lords with their lives. Those samurai whose liege was killed suffered great shame, and were no longer referred to as samurai. Such men were called Ronin." Cut loose from their feudal base, ronin made their living as soldiers of fortune, hired swords, pirates, and such. Transferred to the post-Cold War world, the concept is ripe for an existential exploration of the nature of allegiance and life.
As the film opens, it appears that this may be where we are headed. Six samurai (reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's magnificent seven) gather in Paris at the behest of Irish revolutionary Dierdre (Natascha McElhone). The lighting, music, and camera angles quickly introduce a film noir feel, emphasizing the mysterious, dark, rainy surroundings. The message created by the mise en scene is reinforced by the manner in which Sam (DeNiro) approaches the initial gathering in a bar--he observes the area from the shadows of an alley, surreptitiously hides his gun before entering, and carefully cases the joint because, as he tells Dierdre, "I never walk into a place I don't know how to get out of." Of those gathered for the assignment, it quickly becomes obvious that Sam, a former CIA operative, is the most adept at survival. The rest of the assemblage is comprised of Vincent (French star Jean Reno), with whom Sam bonds, Gregor (Stellan Skargard), a German computer expert who worked for the KGB, Spence (Sean Bean), a would-be authority on munitions with whom Sam has an immediate conflict, and Larry (Skipp Sudduth), an American with a talent for driving.
And driving turns out to be one of the main motifs in the movie. Combining the techniques of Bullet and The French Connection, the film's numerous car chases resemble an amusement park thrill ride through the French countryside. These chases are always connected to another primary motif, murder and mayhem. Usually initiated by a whole-sale slaughter of the bad guys (one presumes, since they are ronin who are on the other side and who originally worked for East European block nations) in noisy and far-ranging shootouts, the car pursuits rampage through crowded market places, into tunnels, and across mountains. Civilians are routinely knocked-off by slugs or fenders. With all of this going on, one wonders where the cops are. Since the shoot-outs are frequently preceded by plot twists, it becomes a game of who is going to betray whom--after all, the only thing for which the ronin feel any attachment is money.
The Hitchcockian McGuffin, which drives the story Maltese Falcon-style, is the case that the Irish are trying to hijack, since they can't afford to buy its contents. Indeed, the most asked question in the movie is what is in the case. What it contains we never find out. But Sam does. And this is crucial, because he won't reveal the contents, which changes the underlying theme of the picture.
We can understand the obvious deceit involved in Sam's questioning of Spence regarding the color of the boat house at Hereford, given Sam's impulse to protect himself and his evident superiority as a hired gun. That makes sense against an existentialist background. We might overlook certain holes in the plot, given the action-genre structure of the film and its Cold War thriller predecessors. If the movie is about the existential existence of a group of men who are cut off from their roots and the verities which used to support them, we can understand how they might still work within a corruption of the warrior's code. That many of the characters are operating under this code is evidenced by their constant allusions to their previous confrontations ("Where do I know you from?"/ "Vienna."/ "Of course").
The warrior code connection is further elucidated by Vincent's friend's story of the ronin whose master is treacherously slain. In this tale, the ronin pose as soldiers of fortune and bandits until they can effect an act of revenge, and then they commit seppacu (suicide). The code, as illustrated by the story-teller, combines a delight in battle with the need for "something outside the self that has to be served." Sam reduces the code for Vincent to two statements: "Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt," and the answer to the question of who taught him the axiom, "I don't remember. That's the second thing." At the same time, Sam also plays with axioms, observing when a stake-out pans out, "All good things come to those who wait," so his allegiance to the code may be suspect. That suspicion is reinforced by his reaction to the ronin story: those warriors who committed suicide were "wrong."
The third tenet of the warrior code emerges at the end of the movie. Sam, who has developed a love interest with Dierdre, convinces her to escape by admitting, "I never left." This is a reference to the earlier conversations in which his fealty is questioned on the basis of his having worked for the CIA and the possibility that he is on an undercover operation for them. Naturally, he denies the allegation, but in admitting that it was true, he also deactivates the existential element. There is a significant difference between doing a job and following a philosophy.
After the final shoot-out (which includes the Russian secret agent's willing sacrifice of skater Natacha/Katarina Witt), Sam is in possession of the case. When he returns to Paris and meets Vincent at the bar where everything began in the hopes that Dierdre will join him, he turns aside Vincent's query about the contents with "I don't remember. . . . No questions, no answers. That's the business." After Sam's departure with his CIA superior, Vincent muses, "Maybe that's lesson number three." Thematically, lesson number three is that Ronin is nothing more than a proletarian tale about how well a man does his job. An honorable premise, but not as significant as an existential exploration of how to live.
Ronin is sufficiently well-crafted, the scenery is breathtaking, and the action elements are engaging. Mamet saved the script and, like Graham Greene, successfully fashioned an entertainment in this film.
STEVEN H. GALE
Kentucky State University