Vintage Shelf Ronin Is an Action Masterpiece That Earns Its Title

first_imgStay on target Top Movie and TV Trailers You Might Have Missed This WeekWatch These Movies Before ‘Hustlers’ There’s a pretty storied history of writers and directors aping samurai lore to service a half-assed metaphor in action movies and thrillers. It’s not that they’re all, by nature, half-assed (Le Samouraï’s name will not be besmirched in my house), but at this point a movie featuring a hitman who “operates under the code of bushido” or a cowboy drifter who roams the plains “like a masterless samurai” just rings as hollow.It wouldn’t be fair to say this without pointing out that archetypes like the samurai and the cowboy often, in becoming archetypes, transcend the reality from which they stem. Still, it’s become a rare thing to see a (geographically) Western storyteller successfully translate the archetype in a way that successfully acknowledges at least slight context for what the archetype originally was.Enter Robert De Niro vehicle Ronin (stream it on Amazon Prime Video), a film I mistakenly avoided for years due to it being a Robert De Niro vehicle called Ronin. It’s a late-nineties installment in the actor’s storied career, one that came right before Meet the Parents forever altered a generation’s perception of him. In my adolescent arrogance, I always figured a De Niro action flick called Ronin would just play out like a precursor to his utterly weird late-career action/gangster flicks like Righteous Kill.Reader, I was so, so wrong.First of all, any movie featuring Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce is worth two hours of your time. Second, it’s one of the last few films directed by John Frankheimer (the man behind the original Manchurian Candidate) and possibly his magnum opus. Third, Ronin has a few of the greatest car chase sequences of all time and for sheer volume of excellence may be the best car movie ever.What drew me in and made me regret avoiding the film for so many years, though, is the relationship between the film and its title, which is to say that there actually is one. The archetype of the ronin (again, a masterless samurai), when drawn in Western stories, always seems to hone in on the “masterless” part. It’s often applied wantonly to criminals, cowboys, and hitmen alike who serve no great leader and instead hire their skills out to the highest bidder. What filmmakers and storytellers often fail to dive into is the idea that the ronin is not simply a masterless samurai but a samurai who once had a master and no longer does. The appeal of the archetype is not in their lone wolf ethic but in the exploration of what directionless-ness does to a person who has spent their entire life dedicated to a very specific cause.Enter De Niro’s Sam. A mercenary from America, he takes a job offered by the mysterious Deirdre to steal a metallic briefcase from a traveling convoy. Alongside a handful of other mercs he navigates a complex web of double-crosses, shifting loyalties, and lengthy car chases.Sam and his cohorts are all freelancers, hired guns who travel wherever the money takes them. They’re all experts in their individual fields, be it point driving, weapons, or communications. They’re also, crucially, all former Cold War operatives. For years they focused the entirety of their training and skill sets on causes dictated by their respective nations (America, England, France, and Germany). Their causes gave their lives rigorous structure, direction, and purpose. Now that the war is over, they wander aimless, drifters in a new world they don’t seem to know how to navigate. They are, in the truest sense, ronin.A true depiction of a classic archetype is far from the only reason to seek this flick out, though. It also happens to be a classic Guys Who Are Good At What They Do Movie, a sub-genre near and dear to my heart (I think it’s only topped by Guys Who Are Bad At What They Do, shoutouts The Nice Guys). Like in Ocean’s Eleven and most Michael Mann movies, Ronin is an absolute spectacle for moviegoers who are fans of precision as character development. It’s a film chock full of characters who are among the best in their field and go about doing what they do in incredibly specific ways.There’s this scene early on in which Deirdre tells the crew she’s assembled to let her know what gear they need and she’ll make sure they get it. Skipp Sudduth’s Larry, the driver, immediately begins rifling off the specific cars and parts he’ll need in order to complete the job and it’s so incredibly up my alley. That you can stick these guys in a room, outline the mission at hand, and they’ll be able to build the plan out from there and know exactly which guns, cars, and computer rigs they’ll need in order to accomplish the goal is both a testament to how rigorously dedicated to their crafts they are and just extremely dope to watch.That attention to detail and total dedication to their respective skill sets comes into play again in what’s gotta be my favorite scene in the film (car chases aside). After an arms deal goes sideways, Sam starts to realize that Sean Bean’s Spence isn’t up to the professional standard required to pull the job off.First of all, I love the moment Sam demands $200K (the four-week job is originally supposed to pay each man $5K a week with a bonus on completion). It’s a ridiculous increase in pay but he doesn’t really want the money. He’s making a point: he doesn’t work with anyone who doesn’t live up to his professional standard. He’s a meticulous guy, a necessity in his field. If anyone on his team isn’t operating on the same level he is, it’s not an annoyance. It’s the difference between life and death. For that, he’s not risking his life unless he’s being paid accordingly.And then there’s the moment he starts putting the pressure on Spence. As soon as he starts you know it’s curtains for the dude because Sam wouldn’t have started doing it if he weren’t certain he knew how it would play out – he sets the trap (the coffee cup) in plain sight!That ruthless focus continues throughout the film even as plans go to hell and alliances are broken every ten minutes. Ronin is a twisty film that would be much more difficult to keep up with were we not anchored in Sam’s clear, concise focus: get the case, don’t die.There’s so much more to say about Ronin, from the stellar stunt driving (there are 300 stunt drivers in the final chase scene alone) to the film’s aesthetic, which depicts some of the most beautiful cities in the world in muted concrete tones in Frankheimer’s effort to bring a hyperreal quality to the film — a look so true to real life that it becomes surreal in and of itself.Ronin is a juggernaut of a film that should be seen by any serious action movie fanatic. Right now it’s streaming on Amazon Prime, or you could hit up Arrow Video for their excellent Blu-ray restoration. Either way, don’t miss it.More on Shelf: ‘Election’ and the Joy of Hating a CharacterVintage Shelf: ‘The Hunger’ Has Sex, Vampires, and BowieVintage Shelf: ‘The Cobra’ Is Morally Repugnant and Entirely Awesomelast_img


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