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Ronin: Movie Without A Master

29 January 2009 1,101 Views 4 Comments author: David Jordan

“In feudal Japan, the warrior class of Samurai were sworn to protect their liege lords with their lives.  Those Samurai whose liege was killed suffered a great shame, and they were forced to wander the land, looking for work as hired swords or bandits.  These masterless warriors were no longer referred to as Samurai, they were known by another name: such men were called Ronin.”

Thus begins Ronin, the 1998 film directed by John Frankenheimer.  Thankfully for the film, the person who wrote that opening (J.D. Zeik) is not the same person who wrote the majority of the script.  J.D. Zeik is credited for the story and did write the original screenplay, however David Mamet was brought in as a ‘script doctor’ and completely rewrote Zeik’s script while ultimately sticking to the overall story.  Due to a dispute with Zeik and the production company over credit for the screenplay, Mamet is credited as Richard Weisz. Frankly I have no idea how Zeik could have won this dispute; his original screenplay is really nothing at all like what ended up being filmed.1  In any case, even Mamet’s top-notch skill for writing scene and dialogue are not enough to save Ronin from being a near-complete disaster of a film.  I should say now that despite this, I do rather enjoy it.  We all have our guilty pleasures.

After the terrible introduction, Ronin dusts itself off and opens with a shot of Paris at night, panning from Basilique du Sacré-Cœur down to one of Paris’ many narrow streets.  As in any good RPG, our characters rendezvous in a bar, don’t know each other, and are brought together by a mysterious  facilitator who never appears in the story.   The group sets up shop in a warehouse and are briefed by Dierdre (Natasha McElhone) about the job they’ve been hired to do.  This scene sets up Sam (Robert De Niro) to be the alpha dog of the pack; compared to questions asked by the others,  the ones Sam asks about the job clearly suggest he is the most experienced person in the room.  This suggestion is confirmed in the next two scenes as Sam first sniffs out an ambush during an arms deal, then exposes  Spence (Sean Bean) the weapon specialist’s incompetence by, in a particularly satisfying moment, ambushing him with a cup of coffee. Spence is summarily fired from the team.

So far, there is very little to connect the characters to the film’s opening statement.  Obviously they’re mercenaries for hire, so ‘they were forced to wander the land, looking for work as hired swords or bandits’ seems to fit.  However, it’s not clear that these characters weren’t always mercenaries or ‘masterless’ (whatever that means); Spence is the only one who claims to be ex-military, but when Sam exposes his incompetence it becomes clear Spence was lying.  Sam’s experience makes it seem likely he was professionally trained by someone, presumably the CIA; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård) has had little to do thus far, yet through his appearance, mannerisms, thick accent and the way Sam interacts with him it seems likely that Gregor is ex-KGB; Vincent (Jean Reno) and Larry (Skip Sudduth) don’t seem knowledgeable enough to have come up from any official or professional organization, i.e. they were never samurai in the first place.  Dierdre is the person who hired these mercenaries, so she clearly still has a ‘master’.  The film to this point has focused primarily on Sam, so it is most likely the Ronin moniker is meant for him.

The second act opens in Nice, where Dierdre’s team prepares for the ambush on a 3-car convoy protecting the film’s McGuffin (a suitcase). Part of this prep work includes Sam’s and Dierdre’s surveillance of their target, and a necking session in a car outside the villa where the target is staying.  The team executes the ambush the next day, which results in a spectacular action sequence centered around a high-speed car chase tearing through the narrow streets of Nice, destroying several streetside shops and certainly injuring a number of innocent bystanders and ending with a doublecross by Gregor, who swapped the target case with a replica containing a bomb.

These opening scenes of the second act, while entertaining to watch in context, ultimately begin Ronin‘s demise.  From the beginning of the second act throughout the remainder of the film the dialog and action will be viscerally entertaining but thematically hollow.  The immediately obvious thematic problem at this point is Gregor’s clichéd betrayal — of course the ex-KGB agent is going to stab everyone in the back, right?  It’s what they do best.  This cliché grows as the second act continues; what’s left of the team get a lead on Gregor and go after him, while Gregor attempts to deal the case to the Russians (for whom the case was originally meant).  Gregor’s first attempt to make a deal turns out to be a doublecross by the Russians, but before this is revealed Gregor has a ridiculous scene in which he nearly shoots a young child on a playground in order to prove how ruthless he is to the Russian buyer, whom he later shoots in the face when the doublecross becomes known.  He’s ex-KGB (also, German!), what do you expect?

Gregor’s next attempt to make the sale involves a pair of Russians and takes place at the Roman arena in Arles.  Dierdre’s team catches up with Gregor, taking he and the Russians by the lee, but a public tour provides Gregor and the Russians a distraction to slip the trap.  Naturally, escaping the trap means harming several more innocent bystanders as one of the Russians begins shooting people at random, prompting Sam to allow Gregor to get away in order to stop the slaughter.  Sam and Vincent together take out the second Russian, but in the process Sam is hit in the side by a ricocheting bullet.  Gregor seems to be getting away but is surprised by Dierdre’s boss Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), whose name we learn later but appeared earlier in the film giving brief instruction for Dierdre to take the team to Nice.  He’s killed Larry (who had been waiting in the car) and instructs Dierdre to drive, leaving behind Sam and Vincent, who steal a car to make their own getaway.

The scene at Arles confirms Ronin‘s terrible trend of collateral damage — a trend prevalent enough to be considered one of the film’s themes or, in point of fact, a major facet of a theme.  Considered as a thematic facet, the collateral damage begins at an interesting time in the film–a point which I will return to.  Vincent enlists the aid of his friend Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale) — an older man with an aura of wisdom about him — to take care of Sam’s wound, ending the second act.

Vincent and his friend Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale) open the third act with a conversation about Sam and who he is.  Jean-Pierre wonders if Sam still works for the CIA, though Vincent is certain that he does not — if he did, Sam would have simply been able to make a phone call to take care of his wound.  This leads next to what in context is an excellent scene between Sam and Jean-Pierre, in which Jean-Pierre tells the story of ‘The 47 Ronin’ and deliberately attempts to connect the ‘warrior code’ to Sam, who seems to reject what Jean-Pierre is trying to tell him.  This scene is easily the best use of the Ronin concept and the film would likely have been well-served to scrap its terrible introduction in favor of it, because it re-establishes some ambiguity as to whether or not Sam is truly Ronin, where such ambiguity had just a moment before been ostensibly removed.  Instead, the film’s introduction has pre-emptively tipped the scales and we therefore must continue to assume that Sam is, in fact, ‘masterless’ (again, whatever that means).

With Jean-Pierre’s assistance, Sam and Vincent are able to track down Seamus, Dierdre and Gregor; Seamus has physically beaten Gregor, who is being kept alive in order to lead Seamus to the case.  Sam and Vincent perform their own ambush just as Seamus and Gregor are obtaining the case from the post (Gregor had mailed the case to himself) but Sam, presumably due to a connection he felt when they necked, would not stop Dierdre from driving away even though he could have simply shot her (as Vincent afterwards frustratingly points out), leading to the film’s second high-speed car chase which manages to be even more exciting than the first.

No Infiniti brand vehicles were harmed during the making of this film.

Sam and Vincent win the chase, yet with the help of a few good samaritan construction workers who pull Dierdre and the rest away from their burning vehicle, the three manage to escape with the added benefit for Gregor of being able to also escape Seamus and Dierdre.  Later, Sam and Vincent come to the conclusion that Gregor is again going to try to sell the case to the Russians and thus try to find out where these Russians might be.  This leads them to, of all things, an ice show in Paris headlined by a star Russian skater, Natacha Kirilova (Katarina Witt).  Kirilova’s manger — and lover, presumably — is Mikhi (Féodor Atkine), who is in fact the ‘main’ Russian, the guy who actually wants the case which, as it turns out, is actually the sort of case normally used to house ice skates.  Sam and Vincent go to the ice show, watching Mikhi the entire time.  As luck would have it, Gregor does decide to meet with Mikhi during the show and sends a message for Mikhi to meet him in the stadium’s strangely unoccupied media room.

Gregor’s clichéd malevolence carves another notch, as it is revealed during his transaction with Mikhi that there is a sniper in the stadium’s rafters with sights trained on Kirilova, and if Gregor does not call the sniper by a certain time to say he is safe, Kirilova will be shot.  This is why Gregor’s malevolence is clichéd.  There is no logical reason for Gregor to assume that Mikhi won’t kill him regardless of Kirilova’s safety unless we are to assume that Gregor is so cocky as to think that nobody could be as ruthless as he is.  After all, Mikhi is Russian, probably has ties to the former KGB since he and Gregor seem to know each other, so why would he care if his lover was killed?  Gregor really didn’t think this one through, as Mikhi does kill him and subsequently betrays no reaction whatsoever to Kirilova’s shooting directly afterward.

Blending into the crowd that evacuates the building in terror once Kirilova is shot, Mikhi and an associate leave the stadium, confident that they’ve obtained their goal. Unfortunately for them, Seamus — disguised in a security uniform — surprises the pair outside the stadium, killing them and taking the case.  Sam and Vincent see this happen and Sam instructs Vincent to follow Seamus while he goes around the stream of people in order to cut ahead.  He discovers Dierdre in what must be Seamus’s getaway car and, despite having been betrayed by her, tells her to leave the scene, revealing that, in fact, he had never left the CIA and was actually pursuing Seamus and not the case.  Deirdre escapes and, after some difficulty that results in both Vincent and Sam being wounded, Seamus himself is killed.  Cut to the film’s dénouement, which depicts Sam and Vincent having coffee at the same bar in which Ronin began. They say goodbye to each other, and Vincent tells Sam that Dierdre ‘would not come back here’. Sam agrees and the two part ways, ending the film.

The revelation that Sam is still with the CIA completely destroys the theme by which Ronin was introduced, unless we are to assume that theme was never meant for Sam in the first place — which seems ridiculous since he is the main character. As I mentioned earlier, Vincent can’t really be considered Ronin; Gregor still seems to fit here, though again the concept of having a ‘master’ seems counter-intuitive for someone as ruthless as Gregor portrays himself to be.  Dierdre appears to escape the film as Ronin, since her perceived ‘master’ (Seamus) is killed, yet she lives to see another day (whatever it might entail).  It may very well be that Dierdre is truly the person for whom the Ronin moniker was meant, but even if so — perhaps especially if so — Sam’s earlier reluctance to shoot her before the last car chase betrays an entirely illogical infatuation he has with Dierdre.  She must be a really great kisser, or something.

Were Dierdre truly the focus of Ronin, the film immediately fails on a thematic level because there is simply not enough time spent with Dierdre to make her interesting to anyone but Sam (including the audience).  Sam is clearly its main character, however the concept of Ronin breaks down as he is clearly defined as still being samurai.  It would have been better for the film to scrap its introduction and let the concept of Ronin lie exclusively at the feet of Jean-Pierre.  To be fair, the film would only have been nominally better for doing so.  The culmination of the themes surrounding Sam — those of honor and prudence — compared to the themes surrounding Gregor — deceit and malevolence — result in a mix that can best be described as ‘Reaganite’.2

Sam’s values play out as the film develops: he is indifferent when it comes to shooting those who are guarding the case and those who deliberately stand between he and his goal, but once innocent lives are being taken he attempts to prevent it.  A brief romantic interlude with a woman is enough to make her survival important, though she betrays him on two different occasions.  The main opposition (first an ex-KGB, now an Irish terrorist), have no qualms about harming innocent people and have been depicted as being unsympathetic to human life in general.  Ronin, though entertaining on a visceral level, really has nothing more to offer than political leanings from 20+ years in its past.  No matter how good Mamet’s screenplay can be while sticking to the story, no matter how well John Frankenheimer directed the film, and no matter how excellent the chemistry between Robert De Niro and Jean Reno was, Ronin fails to execute even the premise on which it was based.  One can only assume the film was approved for its Reaganite values, which speaks volumes for an industry that idealogically had yet to evolve beyond its political entrapments.

edited by Tracy McCusker

  1. According to director John Frankenheimer, ‘We didn’t shoot a line of Zeik’s script.’
  2. Robin Wood’s provides an excellent definition for Reaganite cinema

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