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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

Ronin (1998), John Frankenheimer [3/5]

Updated: Mar 25

If Heat (1995) and Mission Impossible (1996) had a baby that took itself too seriously, hired a weirdly melodramatic composer that uses the same couple leitmotifs, and struggled with issues of thematic consistency, you would have Ronin. But you would also have a movie that features the best car chase sequences since Billy Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA (1985) due to two important factors: motivated movement and parallel cutting.

Legendary director of Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate John Frankenheimer is so heavy-handed about the masterless samurai who became ronin being an allegory for De Niro and his team that the whole scene in the middle of the film feels like it has flashing lights above it: “Hey look, this is the message of the movie!” Besides this shoehorned lesson about disgraced warriors, most of the film is about the double-crossing non-state warface of Cold War operatives who can't be trusted — including even our lead De Niro who *spoilers* wasn't paramilitary this whole time but actually still involved in the CIA.

But without the humor or entertaining gadgetry of Mission Impossible or the musings on what it takes to live an itinerant life of crime without love or connection like in Heat, you have a movie with this main lesson: the old are more experienced than the young and that no one in the den of thieves can be trusted. Watch any handful of random crime thrillers and you could glean that; it's not much of a lesson.

But who's to say that a film must have a good lesson and can't just be an enjoyable aesthetic experience? Despite the story problems, the car chase sequences are some of the most expertly framed and exhilarating set pieces in the genre.

And of course David Mamet spins his usually superb lines of punchy masculinist prose:

Spence: You worried about saving your own skin? Sam: Yeah, I am. It covers my body. Sam: You're great in the locker room, pal, and your reflexes might die hard, but you're weak when you put your spikes on. Sam: Everybody wants to go to the party. Nobody wants to stay and clean up.

Take De Niro's Sam, the old grizzled operative, and his friendship with Jean Reno's Vincent, and put them in a film with a more meaningful story (something that reaches the level of spirit and emotion in Heat) and you’d have a masterpiece of 90s high-speed, special ops thriller instead of a half-baked story with compelling spectacle. That said, maybe Ronin is one of those films in the tradition of Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), those laconic gangster noir flicks that are more interested in form and technique than content or "message." Not every film has to exude a meaning or even a good story; some are just taking you along for an aesthetic ride. I just prefer some others in that tradition like Thief (1981), Collateral (2004), and Drive (2011), but if you've seen all of those, Ronin might be worth a watch. 3/5.

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