‘Ronin’ (1998)

‘Ronin’ (1998) When I first heard about ‘ Ronin ‘, and it’s premise, back in 1998, I was excited.

Here was the director of two of my favorite films, ‘ The French Connection II ‘ (1975) and ‘ The Manchurian Canditate ‘ (1962) making a comeback, in a gritty espionage thriller, set in France. Many reviewers heralded ‘Ronin’ as John Frankenheimer’s return-to-form after such clunkers as 1996′s ‘ The Island of Dr. Moreau ‘ (remake) and limp would-bes such as ‘The Holcroft Covenant’ (1985).

‘Ronin’ was good, but it wasn’t great. When I saw it the first time, 6 years ago, I had a couple of nagging problems with the film, but now I can only boil it down to one-and-a-half.

As a nominally ‘gritty’ caper film, it really fails to establish a firm ‘sense of place’. Sure, it’s set in France, and sure, I watched and listened to Frankenheimer’s commentary about camera-coverage, 3- and 5- shots when working with an ensemble cast. While most of these actor-centered elements were covered reasonably well, Frankenheimer really didn’t make proper use of the cities and towns he was shooting in – Paris, Nice, Villefranche, Arles – or establish these characters’ relationships to them – to those PLACES – as well as he might have.

Granted that my comments come from the point of view of someone who’s independently spent time in both Paris and Provence, but over all, Frankenheimer essentially homogenized France here – half the film, the exteriors, were shot on location, while the other half was shot on a sound-stage. That is/was the first mistake: For someone who avows an interest in a ‘documentary feel’, he betrays it, almost entirely. The obvious flip-side to this is Frankenheimer’s use of Marseilles in ‘French Connection II’, where he made a point of capturing a lot of the grit and grime of a city that continues to creep me out, whenever I visit it in person.

Not so, in ‘Ronin’ – the streets of Paris, etc. are always clean, even when they were in the sketchiest neighborhoods, that almost certainly don’t get a regular cleaning. In a sense, Frankenheimer et al. never really got out of the studio with this film, as it was so entirely limited to the limited universe that the 5 or 6 protagonists inhabited when they were together.

Unanswered questions – Who are they working for? What’s in the case, etc.? Maguffins are fine for thrillers like this, but Frankenheimer really failed to give these characters an existence outside of their criminal caper – and the little café scene at the beginning of the film is *hardly* enough to sustain the ‘foreignness’ of the location for the duration of the film. All of the principals – Reno, McElhone, DeNiro – all seem to have a reasonable familiarity with either Paris or France in general – AND a need for alternate Parisian locations to eat and sleep, yet none of this is supported.

My point here is that previous and successive films in this genre work well because they communicate a very strong sense of quotidienne existence outside of the ‘caper’, and gave the viewer a sense of _place_ *before* the criminals disrupted that fabric with their violence and other exploits. Other examples of good script/location work in this genre include Alan Parker’s ‘ Midnight Express ‘ (1978), the entirety of Neil Jordan ‘s output (‘Mona Lisa’ [1986]), ‘The Crying Game’ [1993], ‘The Good Thief’ [2003]) and Stephen Frears (‘Dirty Pretty Things’ [2002], ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’ [1987], ‘The Hit’ [1984]). In short, the precedent that Frankenheimer laid-down 23 years before was virtually ignored in this, his 1998 film. Even the craptastic remake of ‘The Italian Job’ (2003) managed to convey a sense of foreign location – Italy, France, etc. – so what went wrong with ‘Ronin’?

Perhaps, the failure of this film should be lain across the threshhold of the script-doctor – David Mamet (e.g. failure to shore-up a promising script) or Frankenheimer, since many of ‘French Connection II’s conventions were borrowed from William Friedkin in the originating film. But both arguments should be entirely moot, considering an entirely new generation of filmmakers have capitalized upon the ‘script/location’ paradigm that Frankenheimer helped to create – Roger Avary, in ‘Killing Zoë’ (1994); Doug Liman, in ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002); Guy Ritchie, in ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ (1998) and ‘Snatch’ (2000); even Tony Scott made good use of location coverage with ‘Spy Game’ (2001), but he is categorically *not* a GenX filmmaker.

*SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD*

The film really stutters in the final half-hour, with the conclusion at the Hippodrome. Frankenheimer had all of Paris at his disposal – many, many of scenic streets, public plazas, unique architecture and a labyrinthine subway-system – yet he chose to frame the conclusion of this well-traveled tale inside a sports-arena, which could have been shot in Cleveland, OH if not L.A.

In this way, the specificity of *place*, which Frankenheimer worked – however tenuously – to establish in the film’s previous 90 mins. is all but evacuated. And thus ends our interest in ‘Ronin’ as an ‘international’ crime-caper.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

One Response to “‘Ronin’ (1998)”

  1. Yeah, nice comment, but I don’t agree. Ronin may not be your favourite. I did enjoy the film very much. The car-casting was great (Audi S8, Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9, E34 M5 3.4), the actor casting was also great (Reno and the De Niro worked great together).

    Ok, The French Connection II is a true Classic, I understand and agree. But you can’t compare these two movies. And the fact that Frankenheimer didn’t use all of the locations was a relief to me.

    You’re right in the sense that it might be interesting, but it wouldn’t add up to the film, I think. Ronin has a sense of mystery which works great. We won’t ever know what’s in the suitcase. And that’s a fact I really like. In lots of films it would be clear, but Frankenheimer chose not to, and a view other facts wich won’t be cleared.

    I think that’s great, leave some things to your imagination. It gives something to think about. And I can’t think off a lot of films wich made me something to think about.

    Kind regards,

    Jan-Willem.

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