Ronin Review

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by Casimir Harlow Mar 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Ronin Review
    However limited he is when it comes to putting believable words into the mouths of females, David Mamet is perhaps the most distinguishable scriptwriter in the business - his words punchy and smart and quick-fired. Once you've come across a Mamet-scripted film, it is easy to notice his work in other movies - The Untouchables: “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue”, Spartan: “Don't teach 'em knife-fighting, teach 'em how to kill. That way if they meet some sonofabitch who studied knife-fighting, they send his soul to hell” and Heist: “This guy's so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him”. They are all great movies, but what surely makes them even more memorable is this trademark dialogue - the very words spoken, rather than just who they are spoken by. Clearly Mamet does better putting the words in the mouths of tough, experienced (normally military-trained) characters, predominantly men, and as such much of his work recently has been focussed around the solid special ops TV series The Unit, which he created. For me, he is like the Ali of screenwriters - not without fault, but unparalleled with his words and packing some punch. Towards the end of the last (and potentially last ever) peak in the great method acting maestro Robert DeNiro's career, he signed on to do his fourth Mamet-scripted movie (having made an outstanding Capone in The Untouchables, a lacklustre comedian in the lame We're No Angels, passed up the role that eventually went to Anthony Hopkins in The Edge and collaborated on the poignant Wag the Dog), also pairing up with the great French actor Jean “Leon - The Professional” Reno, and all under the helm of Director John “The French Connection II” Frankenheimer. The end result was arguably the last decent action thriller in DeNiro's career, Ronin.

    “I never walk into a place I don't know how to walk out of.”

    Hired by a mysterious Irish woman (undoubtedly with IRA-affiliated backers), a disparate group of ex-intelligence and ex-military mercenaries band together in Paris to perform what should be a relatively simple heist and steal a briefcase. They have very little information to work on - unaware of who or how many opposing numbers they may encounter, or indeed what is actually in the target case itself, but nevertheless formulate a plan, gather the required weapons and materials and wait for the ambush. All, however, is not what it seems, and after several double-crosses and twists it becomes apparent that several of the mercenaries have their own hidden agendas. Lines are blurred, loyalties tested and gunfire exchanged in the race to get the case.

    Although ostensibly the story and script were written by a certain J.D. Zeik (whose only other film credits include the lacklustre martial arts adventure The Touch and the recent vaguely enjoyable Seagal DTV release Pistol Whipped), it is obvious from watching the movie that the dialogue (if not the whole thing) had a lot of reworking done to it. And with David Mamet publically airing his desire to be removed off the credits (he was, in fact, credited under the pseudonym of Richard Weisz in the end), it is clear who to thank for all the sharp words and character development. In fact, anybody who has seen a Mamet film is likely to recognise his style of writing, and not least through his regular use of repeated phrases - “draw it again, draw IT again, it's a simple diagram, draw it again, DRAW it again...etc.” and although this would have probably made for a perfectly enjoyable heist movie without his involvement, his input certainly elevates it to a quality spy thriller.

    With a convoluted (but not overly elaborate) plot involving disavowed IRA terrorists, Russian arms dealers and the CIA, Ronin manages to weave its cleverly constructed story in such a way as to draw the viewer into the proceedings. Sure, alliances will shift and twists will throw you off the scent, but the thriller pretty swiftly establishes two main 'heroes' in ex-CIA mercenary Sam and Frenchman Vincent (Sam taking the lead pretty-much from the start), and two shady characters to watch out for in the form of ex-KGB merc' Gregor and the mysterious Irishman Seamus who appears to be pulling the strings of the woman who hired the mercenaries, Diedre. By following these characters as they race across the Parisian locales, the viewer can at least feel like they are on the right side of things, even if we don't know exactly what is going on until the final few scenes. Along the way, Director John Frankenheimer does a brilliant job of populating the thriller with tense shootouts and some truly outstanding car chase sequences - arguably some of the best ever brought to the big screen, and certainly up there with the likes of Bullitt, The French Connection and To Live and Die in LA in terms of car chases. Of recent years, these have possibly been topped by the Bourne trilogy (Supremacy's painful crash-and-smash taxi chase being the highlight) but Ronin still offered breathtaking speed and crash-tastic climaxes. And the nice thing about it was that the film held together even without the chases, so they just added to the thrills rather than defined the movie.

    “Either you're part of the problem or you're part of the solution, or you're just part of the landscape”

    Robert DeNiro heads up an ensemble cast of solid, noteworthy actors, playing the self-appointed leader of the mercenaries, Sam. Although he doesn't really have to break a sweat acting-wise (even if he does a fair amount of decent action scenes, and wields myriad assault weapons), he brings just the right amount of competence, experience and wit to the proceedings, perfectly disseminating his Mamet-penned words with measured speech and slight facial expressions, and making his character easily the most likeable, and arguably the coolest of the pack. It was never going to win him an Oscar, but his performance here still marks something that his fans would have been more than happy to have seen from him in the recent debacle Righteous Kill, had he pulled it off.

    Pairing him up with the veteran French actor Jean Reno was a good idea too, Reno playing the tough but overly trusting mercenary, Vincent. Although he starred in two of my favourite films, Leon and Nikita, Reno's best work was clearly before he graduated to mainstream Hollywood, where he appeared to get instantly typecast as a tough Gallic merc'/military man who often has a hidden agenda (Godzilla, Mission Impossible) and even over the last few years his better work has generally involved a return to France (L'Empire des Loups or Le Premier Cercle versus The Pink Panther 1 and 2). In Ronin he basically plays a kindly, less experienced foil to DeNiro's cynical almost mentor-like Sam, and whilst he gets some fun shooting and action sequences, there really isn't much meat here for him to get into.

    “You're great in the locker-room pal, and your reflexes might die hard, but you're weak when you put your spikes up”

    Stellan Skarsgard's mischievous Gregor has a much more intriguing, involving role, with the Swedish star of the original (and arguably superior) Insomnia making for a deceptively innocuous and distinctly unpredictable member of the team. We also get the strikingly distinctive Natasha McElhone donning a terrible Irish lilt for her role as the mysterious contact, Diedre, who organises the team in the first place. She was great opposite Clooney in Solaris, but here her uncomfortably put-on accent really detracts from what is already quite a confused performance. Rounding out the cast there's Sharpe himself, Sean Bean, as the over-enthusiastic, purportedly ex-SAS member of the bunch and Jonathan “Brazil” Pryce putting on an even worse Irish accent than McElhone as the nasty Seamus.

    Whilst Ronin might not go down in film history as a top-of-its genre thriller, it is still greater than the sum of its explosive, stylish and snappily-worded parts, a cool, enjoyable piece of escapism, with a hip ensemble cast (although not quite as perfect in terms of mercenary movie casts as that for the upcoming Stallone movie The Expendables - Mickey Rourke, Dolph Ludgren, Jason Statham and Jet Li etc.) that includes Robert DeNiro in one of his last decent 'straight' hero roles. Working even better on a second viewing (where some of the actions of the characters make more sense), it is a highly watchable action thriller, with a cynical, modern espionage plot and plenty of explosive action. Recommended.

    “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt”

    The Rundown

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