Friday, April 15, 2011

Film Friday: Ronin (1998)

Most action movies are utterly mindless. They offer little more than adrenaline highs, triggered by big explosions, fast motion and loud soundtracks. Ronin, directed by John Frankenheimer and essentially written by David Mamet (credited as Richard Wiesz), is different. It’s brilliant. Ronin is gripping. It’s got fascinating twists and turns. It’s got characters that are both deep and deeply interesting, and it presents a truly immersive world. How does it achieve this? Minimalism and realism.

** spoiler alert **

Ronin Uses Minimalism To Make Us Build The Story
From the beginning, Ronin deliberately uses minimalism to pull us into the story. Little is said, less is shown and we know almost nothing. How does this pull us in? Because our brains don’t like information gaps, and will fill in those gaps with information that we consider appropriate. Thus, by carefully rationing information, Ronin actually co-opts our brains to get us to fill in the world with details that work for us. In effect, we personalize the film by assembling the characters, giving them backstories, and explaining the dispute.

For example, we know Ronin is about a group of mercenaries hired in Paris by an Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a briefcase from a man surrounded by expert security, but we don’t know what’s in the briefcase. It could be blackmail material, diamonds, nuclear material, computer code, counterfeiting plates or anything else. If the writer chooses one of these, there is a good chance some portion of the audience will decide this isn’t worth fighting for. But by staying silent on this point, everyone in the audience will mentally fill the briefcase with something they personally think is worth fighting for. Thus, the audience satisfies itself that the premise is justified and makes sense.

Ronin uses this same technique to build incredibly rich characters. We know almost nothing about the mercenaries, though we are given clues. In assembling these clues, we ourselves create backstories for the characters that just don’t exist in the writing. For example, we know nothing about Sam (Robert DeNiro), except that he’s an American. We also know nothing about Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), but his accent tells us he’s probably German. When Deirdre tells us they were all referred to her by “the man in the wheelchair,” we infer that they are mercenaries of some sort. When Gregor asks Sam how the man ended up in the wheelchair, Sam says, “I was under the impression that happened in your neck of the woods, during the late unpleasantness.” From this, we can infer that they were spies during the Cold War and that Gregor and Sam were on opposite sides. We don’t know any of that, but we can infer it. We can also infer they no longer work for their countries. And when we infer these things, we simultaneously fill in their pasts with an appropriate backstory for spies who have become mercenaries. Thus, with only a few words from the writer, we ourselves create extensive backstories for the characters which satisfy us as to their credentials.

Sometimes we are even given specific hints to guide our newly-created backstories. To understand what I mean, consider this. At one point, a Russian asks where he’s seen Vincent (Jean Reno) before. Vincent responds with one word: “Vienna.” And when he says it, his voice is seething with hate. With that one word, a whole chapter in Vincent’s past is revealed to us and this whole imaginary chapter becomes part of his character even though nothing more is ever said than the one word. Seriously, when you hear him say that single word, you can literally imagine the entire Vienna incident. Similarly, we are told that Deirdre’s boss Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) was tossed out of the IRA for some reason, which again we aren’t told. But our brains fill in his backstory by coming up with some horrific deed that we personally believe would make the IRA kick this man out. Again, without coming up with a single word about his past, the writer tricks us and now we see Seamus as an evil man of the highest order.

In this way, Ronin causes us to build these characters and to generate the world that surrounds them within our own minds, and that makes the story all the richer for us.
Ronin Uses Realism To Make Us Care About The Consequences
Having gotten the audience to build the characters and fill in their world, Frankenheimer then uses realism to give the story meaning. Why? Because the more real a story feels to us, the greater we will perceive the consequences to be and the more we will care about what happens. In this case, the realism involves both the characters themselves and the physical laws of their universe.

Consider the characters. These men are highly competent. But unlike Tom Cruise movies, where someone needs to tell Tom that he’s “the best,” we learn this in Ronin by observing these men. They are fast and smart and clever. They make no mistakes. They are fearless, but not reckless. They display tremendous experience, critical knowledge and sound judgment. In other words, they are highly believable as spies or mercenaries because they display the exact traits we assume a top spy would need to survive. Moreover, their low key but determined approach immediately gives them an authenticity that a flashy James Bond character or an invincible Jason Bourne character can never achieve. This makes them real to us and draws us in because we feel like we are seeing something with real-world consequences.

The sets add to this sense of realism too. Everything happens in Paris and Nice, which lends an exotic touch to the story, but the characters spend their time in dingy apartments with blacked-out windows, i.e. places they would really stay. They don’t rent impossibly large hotel rooms overlooking the Eiffel Tower and advertize themselves to the world.

They use real weapons too, rather than the super-weapons preferred by most action heroes. What’s more, the action itself is much like we would expect it to be in real life. For example, when these characters empty a clip into a crowd, innocent people die. When they get shot, they bleed or die. Indeed, throughout this movie, you have the feeling that every time a gun is fired, something very real and very terrible can happen, and that keeps you on the edge of your seat in the fight scenes. Further, when car chases happen, there are no Dukes of Hazzard jumps, they don’t ride on two tires, and no one climbs out onto the roof and tries to jump onto another car. What they do instead is push their cars to the limit of losing control, a place that most of us have been at one time or another with our own cars. And because we remember what it felt like when our car started to skid out from under us, we recall that feeling when we see it happen to Sam or Vincent and we add it to the experience. Thus, by staying within our real world frame of reference, they pull in our own angst to heighten the danger. Compare that with the nothing you feel when two characters are fighting on top of a moving car.

The bad guys are believable too. They all have motivations: some want money, some are in this for the politics. Yet, they don’t see themselves as bad people (nor do they delude themselves that they are angels) and none of them are maniacal. They just are what they are and they’ve come to terms with that, and that makes them horrific to us because they’re cold-blooded and inhuman. Indeed, unlike most Hollywood villains who need to kick puppies or shoot henchmen to prove they are evil rather than just prancing fools, the bad guys here need no such proof. Everything about them tells you these men think nothing of killing and do it quite efficiently. But just as importantly, they don’t kill for fun or because they are sadists; they kill because it’s required to get the job done. This keeps them from seeming cartoony to us. It also heightens the tension because we know these people are truly serious and will not mess around. That’s never something you can be sure of with the comic book villains, who seem to distract themselves at all the wrong times.
Conclusion
This is why Ronin is such a fantastic action movie. The story is great and the film is well shot -- excellent sets, soundtrack and scenes. But even more importantly, we are co-opted into creating ultra-rich characters that we care about personally because we made them. Then they are put into seemingly real danger, under real world rules that keep us from knowing that everything will work out in some improbable way. I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

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27 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

I enjoyed Ronin and what originally pulled me in was the title, taken from the Japanese term for Samurai who had lost their place in the service of a particular lord and ended up as mercenary "free agents" in the particular world of "bushido." That said, I think I have seen this movie only once in full.

What I have come to realize from your reviews, is that to truly understand a film of any complexity at all, one needs to partake in multiple viewings just to understand how the film maker goes about making his or her points. Because of the incrediblely dynamic soundtracks presented in Dolby surround, I now know the best way for me to do this is to watch subsequent viewings with English sub-titles. As an example, in the Spanish Prisoner which was reviewed a few weeks ago, a critical "reveal" dialogue is virtually drowned out by a fog horn (on purpose, perhaps?)

I appreciate your review, Andrew. How closely I agree with all your points will require my going back and "RE- VIEWING" "Ronin" with subtitles on, natch ;-)

Since this is a film thread, and given my interest in the Civil War, I want to do a quick mention of a review I read today on the just released film "The Conspirator" about the trial and execution of Mary Surratt. Right away, the fact that this is a Redford film tells you want you need to know. It will be beautifully shot bullshit designed to draw comparisons of the military tribunal that tried her with the situation today involving "Gitmo." It will give only those facts that support the liberal agenda.

Instead, buy and read "Blood on the Moon - The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" by Edward Steers, Jr. instead. It is the best book ever written on the topic and will give a real, academic (but very readable) account of the issues surround the Lincoln conspirators.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks. When you watch Ronin again, let me know what you think. I think you'll be impressed. Frankenheimer and Mamet (there was a dispute as to writing credit, hence the credit to Weisz) really are masters of telling you everything you need to know about these characters and the plot without ever telling you everything. In fact, if you write down exactly what you know about these people and then wrote down what you think you know, you'd been stunned at the difference in the two lists.

(FYI, I'm haven't had a chance to rewatch Spanish Prisoner yet.)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, On The Conspirator, there is actually something in the trailer that turns me off even before they mention Robert Reford, which pretty much turns me off. I don't like his style, which is fluffy and feels dated, and I don't like the way he politicizes everything.

What turns me off is the one guy yelling "there is no limit to how far the prosecution is willing to go." I can't quite put my finger on it, but this sounds anachronistic to me -- like something somebody might yet in a cheap modern courtroom drama, not like anything anyone would have said back in 1865.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew and Tennessee: I have to revisit Ronin. I didn't much care for it the time I watched it, but I think I was ticked off at De Niro about something at the time. In retrospect, it did seem deeper than what I was giving it credit for.

As for The Conspirator, I'm glad I'm not the only one who was deeply suspicious based on Redford and the trailers. I'll wait for it to come to NetFlix and watch it only to see if one of the rotten prosecutors is named Bush.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I'll do exactly that. I love DVD for this very reason: it is so easy to re-watch scenes, lines, and everything else. When I do, I have tablet in hand for notes! :D As for S.P., I think maybe the reason some missed the key tie-in is just that. The foghorn blows just as Martin delivers the reveal. While I don't advocate subtitles during an initial screening, I am now firmly an advocate when later dissecting the film. Give it a try!

The Conspirator: The trial of Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd, more than any others, provoked controversy at the time. Many though Surratt was being used as leverage for the son to turn himself in. I don't doubt something like that could have been said, whether those exact words were used. I definitely agree about his film style. I liked it in the Natural and Baggar Vance (did he do Gatsby, too?) but it has been so overused by him it no longer is effective. Plus, he's just an old fart liberal with enough money to be an ass about it and try to do some real damage

My rant today is over the fact Redford is hoping to use the civil war anniversary to make a movie that will give only one side of a real argument. I can easily see high school teachers (wonder what their politics are?) to see this movie and brainwash them and draw the connection with GITMO. Well, screw Redford. At least Ted Tuner kept his politics at the door when he did history movies. BTW, I am serious about Blood on the Moon. It is a history book that reads like a great crime novel. I urge all to read it.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think I know the incident. He got a good deal holier-than-thou for a short period of time around this when he was opening his movie festival and started talking about racism in the US.

Check it out, this ranks very, very highly both with the public and the critics. But even more importantly, this is really a great film.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I definitely will watch SP with subtitles. Like you, one of the things I love about DVDs is having the ability to go back and rewatch specific moments and to turn on the subtitles to get any nuances that you might miss because of the soundtrack.

Plus, in some instances, the sound quality is so bad on films these days (or the accents are so bad in a lot of British crime films) that I have little choice but to turn on the subtitles. I also prefer to use subtitles for foreign films rather than the voice-overs because they miss a lot. Also, as an aside, I've found (from speaking German) that the subtitles are often more accurate than the voice-overs.... very strange.

On Redford, I have really never cared for his style. There's something lazy about it in that it lacks creativity or surprise or even anything of interest -- it's just a film presented very generically. And I don't like his politics at all, which strike me as smug elitism while pretending he's being apolitical.

In terms of the story itself, I'm only slightly familiar with the events in question as the Lincoln assassination has never struck much of a chord with me. But it does seem tailor-made to be exploited to make political statements about today's war on terror. And it wouldn't surprise me at all, if this turned out to be politically correct garbage that school teachers try to use as a teaching tool. It's amazing how often teachers seem to love using film propaganda in their classrooms.

Iced Matty said...

This is my favorite De Niro film, but I like Jean Reno in this even better. Good review!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Matty! This was the second film in which I saw Reno -- the first being "The Professional" and I was really impressed with him too. Unfortunately, much of the rest of his career has been wasted in things like the Pink Panther remake.

Writer X said...

This is one of my all-time fave films. I thought Jean Reno was brilliant and DeNiro was perfect in this role.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Same here! :-)

I actually had gotten pretty bored with De Niro before this and he delivered a heck of a performance. And Reno was great! I kept hoping they would do some sort of sequel or just use the same cast in something similar, but they never did. That's too bad. I think Reno and De Niro had incredible chemistry.

DUQ said...

Andrew, Excellent review as always. I think another point to add is there is a balancing here. If you give too much information, then nothing is left to pull the reader in. But if you give too little, then the story is too empty to pull the reader in. I'm not sure where that line is, but it is the vital line here.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Outstanding review, Andrew!

When an actor like DeNiro pisses me off it's difficult not to be distracted by that while watching a movie he's in.

Fortunately, Reno is in this one, so that helps me enjoy the film immensely!

You're right about his talent being wasted. I don't get it.
Reno has enough talent to make even lemons like Godzilla 2000 palatable.
If I were a director he would be one of my top go to guys for virtually any role I could think of and there ain't very many actors or actresses I can say that about.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Jed: thanks for the book recommendation. I'll check that out.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That's a truly excellent question and that's where I think writing talent come in. I would guess that you need to get all the basics down firmly and everything else can be fudged, and from there it's how you fudge it that matters.

Consider the "Vienna" thing again. The way they bring that out is so much more interesting than if someone had said, "where have you worked?" and he said "Vienna." I think the key in that case is the way he says it and you also draw in the aspects of the current scene into that word to give you a sense of what "Vienna" was about. In other words, from the context, we assume it was something similar with spies running around chasing someone or something. So it's all in how you trick the audience into shaping their beliefs.

Is there a formula? Not that I know of.

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, I agree. Reno would easily be at the top of my list for almost any film I could think of. But somehow, he only seems to get called for films like the Pink Panther remake and Godzilla. It's a shame because he really is a tremendous talent with a very likable film personality.

What's funny about De Niro, is that even before he started saying stupid things (which I think was short-lived), he was wearing out his welcome with me because he kept playing the same role over and over -- the ethnic cop/gangster. Even when he wasn't playing a gangster/cop, he still seemed to be playing that role. This was the first role in a long time that he played that I really felt he did something different. It wasn't wildly different, but it was truly different.

Ed said...

I loved this film. I thought everything about it was great, especially the car chase. I also have to admit that it got me interested in the SIG 551 that De Niro was using. I keep meaning to get one.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, The car chase is one of the best on film. It's almost up there with Bullit. And to make it all the more real, they actually put the actors into the cars for part of it and you can see the fear in their eyes.

I have to admit that gun impressed me too. In fact, it impressed enough people that SIG brought out a civilian version a few years after the movie, which you can now get in the US. I've been tempted myself.

Ed said...

Andrew, When they first came out, you couldn't even find them they were sold out before they ever got here. I should go look now and see if they are available yet!

Tam said...

I loved Ronin, and I love Jean Reno.

On another note, I just got back from Atlas Shrugged...I was probably the youngest person in the crowd, BUT there was a crowd. I don't remember the last time I went to a movie in a crowded theater. Also, everyone clapped at the end. That hasn't happened to me since the opening sequence and the familiar John Williams tune when the new Star Wars movies came out.

Anyone else seen it? Or should I have saved this for the open thread on Sunday....

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Good luck! Buy them while they're legal! ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I agree about Jean Reno. I've really liked in everything I've seen him in, even when I despised the movie (like the Pink Panther film). I wish Hollywood made more use of him!


This is a good spot to talk about Atlas Shrugged. How was it? Did they keep to the themes in the book or did they try to twist them leftwards? I'm very curious!

Tam said...

It was really good. No lefty twists and turns, that's for sure. The government and unions are portrayed very much as they were in the book (and reality, I might add). I was confused a little, I thought I was watching Dear Leader and his minions at times...

One thing that did not quite come through in the movie was the extreme frustration the great business people and producers felt. Other than that, I think it was great. This is a movie Obama would not want you to see!

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, Thanks! :-)

I thought it was an incredible book and when I heard they were making it into a film, I was very concerned they were going to twist it and do something like make hedgefunds into the problem.

I can't imagine Obama would be very happy seeing that film at all. In fact, if they stick to the book, then I can't image any Democrats will feel particularly comfortable watching the film.

Now I need to see this film! I was going to wait, but I think I'll go check it out.

Ed said...

Tam, Thanks! I was going to avoid the film because I figured it would be liberalized. Now I'll check it out. I'm glad too to hear there were crowds. I hope this movie scores big time and encourages Hollywood to make more conservative films!

Doc Whoa said...

This is a great film and an interesting review! I had to watch it several times to get all the ins and outs. I think it took me three or four viewings before I realized it was the Russians attacking them under the bridge. The head guy speaks French, but the others are clearly yelling in Russian once things start.

I love the bit in the area too where the Russians are just brutual about getting the job done and they end up shooting a couple of tourists.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, It actually took me a while too because you don't really learn about the Russians being competitors until later in the film and the head guy does speak French. In any event, that's a great scene and it really shows you the difference between Sam and Spence in real terms.

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