Monday, January 02, 2012

Underrated Movie #144: Ronin


Title: Ronin
Year: 1998
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Story by J. D. Zeik, Screenplay by Zeik and David Mamet (credited as “Richard Weisz”, because he was pissed they didn’t give him solo credit.)
Stars: Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce

The Story: A group of ex-cold-warriors from different countries, all thrown out of work, assemble for a straight-up mercenary job, hired by the IRA to steal a mysterious case from the Russians. Let the double-crossing and triple-crossing ensue!

How it Came to be Underrated: After the Berlin Wall fell, the spy genre seemed in danger of dying. It first started to return with movies like this in the late ‘90s, but it wasn’t until The Bourne Identity and Casino Royale came out that audiences were fully back on board. This smart adrenaline-fest is at the same level as those and deserves to be rediscovered.

Why It’s Great:
  1. I’ve listened to hundreds of director commentaries over the years, but only a few have stayed with me. This is one of the very best. Frankenheimer intensely and entertainingly explains every decision he made. He tries his best to make visible to his audience all of the invisible storytelling elements that only a great director can see.
  2. Frankenheimer talks about wanting to avoid bright colors, so he costumed accordingly and then threw tarps over any bright colors that he saw on the practical exterior sets. Nowadays (starting just two years later, actually) they would have just digitally dyed the whole movie blue in post-production, with a few orange highlights tossed in, despite the fact that this always looks horrible. I’m always baffled that actors don’t complain about the fact that they all look like corpses or oranges these days.
  3. Why are the movies David Mamet writes for others so much better than the movie he directs himself? First and foremost because he’s a terrible director. If you don’t believe me, read his book “On Directing Film”, which is firehose of contempt aimed at the art of acting. The second problem is that most of movies have the same twist: the woman screws everybody over. When he’s forced to collaborate, his worst instincts are tamped down. Perhaps the best situation is one like this where he simply adds his great dialogue to someone else’s story.
  4. That said, this dialogue is Mamet at his best. Mamet’s characters are always wonderfully guarded. The dialogue is not the most bad-ass thing they could say, but the most bad-ass thing they would say: “You every kill anybody?” [knowing smirk:] “I hurt somebody’s feelings once.” Or later: “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you.” “Who taught you?” “I don't remember. That's the second thing they teach you.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor as good as DeNiro saying the lines.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Frankenheimer does his best here to top Willaim Friedkin’s bravura against-traffic freeway chase in To Live and Die in L.A. Though he was the senior director, it wasn’t the first time he followed in Friedkin’s footsteps: Frankenheimer directed the little-seen The French Connection II, which is a great little thriller if you don’t hold it up to the standard of Friedkin’s more ambitious original.

How Available Is It?: It’s on Watch Instantly, but you owe it to yourself to order the DVD, both for the commentary and the superior resolution in the action sequences.

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