As so often happens when it’s time to write this column, a couple of things have been floating around my head after another week at the movies. David Mamet’s Redbelt opened up recently, and it’s another of his recent explorations of stoic manliness (see also Spartan, or The Unit), with tough, tough guys spouting tough, tough talk. The other thing that was on my mind — or, more accurately, burned into my retina — was the lingering afterbuzz from the goofy colors and visions of Speed Racer, the big-screen re-imagining of the classic car racing kid’s show, which left me enthused and smiling. (Unlike some people, I thought Speed Racer was an great-looking, silly, well-made kid’s movie, but that’s why they call it film criticism instead of film agreement). But it also left me a little hungry for actual high-speed driving with actual cars and not Speed Racer’s impressive yet impossible pixel-crafted simulations of speed and velocity.
Fortunately, one movie offers both of those things: Ronin, a 1998 action thriller from Director John Frankenheimer. Ronin stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard as part of a rag-tag group of mercenaries, a hastily-assembled crew of ex-intelligence agents fallen on hard times, cold warriors who’ve been left out in the cold by changing policies and political orders. (The title, as the opening titles explain, is the term applied to masterless Samurai in feudal Japan, who had to scrape together whatever work they could as thieves and strong-arm artists, men of honor who had been unmade by fate.) Natasha McElhone hires De Niro, Reno, Skarsgard, Skipp Sudduth and Sean Bean to steal a case — she doesn’t tell them what’s in it, because it doesn’t matter — from heavily armed shady types who don’t want it to be stolen. As the chase for the film’s MacGuffin whips through France, the plot’s really an excuse for Frankenheimer to have plenty of car chases and action sequences, punctuated with bursts of gunfire and the occasional moment of curt, cynical world-weary male bonding. In other words, it’s great, two-fisted action moviemaking.
You may not know of Mamet’s involvement with Ronin, and that’s okay; you’re not supposed to. Mamet significantly re-wrote J.D. Zeik’s original screenplay for Ronin, but a dispute over credits resulted in Mamet asking that a pseudonym, Richard Weisz, be used as his credit. But you don’t have to be an insider to spot the stops and starts of Mamet’s distinctive style in Ronin, or the blunt, bleak comedy in it. When he’s asked how he knew a meeting was an ambush, De Niro tosses off what sounds like hard-earned wisdom: “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.” And as De Niro and Reno bond on the job, they get to do plenty of to-and-fro stuff that makes Ronin feel like an armed buddy comedy. After Sam gets some information out of someone, Vincent’s curious about how Sam was able to get so much out of the guy so fast: “A friend of yours?” Sam’s nonchalant: “Yeah, we went to high school together.” Vincent meets Sam’s cool with a French shrug, a raised eyebrow, and a little cynicism: “Well, everyone’s your brother ’till the rent comes due. …”
And when De Niro and Reno aren’t playing tough, they’re driving fast; the chases in Ronin are amazing. Frankenehimer (who passed away in 2002) was a big racing buff and knew how to shoot chase sequences; his first color film was Grand Prix, and he also gave us The French Connection II. And there’s no digital trickery or computer effects in Ronin, just impressively competent stunt drivers, and even a few actors willing and crazy enough to do it themselves. Actor Skipp Sudduth asked Frankenheimer if he could train and do his own stunt driving; Frankenheimer came around, but had one caveat for Sudduth: ‘I don’t wanna see any brake lights.” After Speed Racer, which pays minimal attention to little things like the laws of physics and gravity, Ronin offered me a high-octane refresher course in Newton’s laws of motion, as cars screech, skid and swerve along mountain roads and roar and rocket down cobblestone streets.
Reno and De Niro soon realize, the hard way, that they’re the only two honorable thieves in their group, which means that they’re the only ones who can try and set things right after the job goes wrong. Barring justice, they’ll settle for vengeance, or at the very least getting close to even. Mamet’s always been obsessed with character and principle; in Ronin, the symphony of harsh language Mamet’s characters normally spit between each other has a few extra deep notes in the form of gunfire and explosions. Ronin’s available on DVD in a fairly well-made 2-disc special edition, and one well worth enjoying; in a summer movie season where we’ve already see billionaire industrialists fly and cars do kung-fu, an action movie as simple and straightforward as Ronin feels like a well-deserved steak dinner to break up a four-month long dessert course.