My favorite part of the film Ronin is not the deft cinematography and sound that capture the grim nature of the shadowy world populated by terrorists, organized crime, and ex-spies. Not is it the believable yet spectacular action sequences — well paced gunplay and the most amazing car chases I’ve ever seen.
Instead, the part of the movie that strikes a chord with me is when the character played by Robert De Niro puts his foot down during a mission planning session and states that if it’s “amateur hour” and he can’t get the information and manpower he wants, then his price goes up. As a fellow contractor, I can relate.
OK, so his project involves an armed ambush to steal a mysterious case for an international terrorist operating in Europe, while I just write software. And contract termination in his case likely involves a real “termination”, so we won’t be sending dues to the same professional societies. But a project is a project, and this team of freelancers faces the same obstacles that bedevil all projects — team members who don’t trust each other (besides De Niro’s ex-CIA character, there is an ex-KGB operative played with perfect coldness by Stellen Skarjsgard), varying levels of competence (Sean Beam’s weapon specialist exhibits just enough bragadaccio and nervousness to make you doubt his reliability), unhelpful leadership (De Niro asks Jean Reno if he’s “labor or management”), and people who are anxious to change course (De Niro at one point tells his coworkers, “Let’s stick with the plan, it’s a good plan” — how often I’ve wanted to say that!)
The team dynamics improve for a while (after one member is released with a terse non-disclosure agreement) but labor-management relations worsen after a double-cross during the flaming ambush, and all surviving participants somehow come together again in a slightly anticlimactic ending involving Katarina Witt and Russian organized crime.
The DVD features a slick menu design that displays a drivers view of the chase sequence — you can kill some time just by watching that — and a detailed commentary by the director John Frankenheimer. As with the film, the commentary is most interesting when elaborating on the camera and stunt techniques, but less than persuasive when explaining the Ronin theme — masterless samurai roaming as soldiers for hire but still adhering to the old code. It’s not clear how far this analogy is supposed to stretch, but in the end this group of mercenaries seem less like the Seven Samurai and more like a bunch of guys in jobs they don’t particularly enjoy, but it’s better than working at Starbucks.
The characters are not particularly sympathetic, and I can’t even remember all their names, but that actually works for this movie — the main contact Dierdre (I think of her as the project manager) is chastised by her boss when she refers to the driver Larry by his first name (“poor Larry”). There is supposed to be some romantic, or at least sexual, tension between De Niro’s character and Dierdre — he is pretty cool after all — but the chemistry between De Niro and Reno is more convincing.
Frankenheimer seems a bit too nice, or too politically-correct, when talking about the people involved in the film. He heaps praise on everyone, but director and cast commentaries are more entertaining and illuminating when the narrators let go a bit and talk about real difficulties they faced and parts they wish had been done differently (although there is one amusing anecdote about the always-prepared De Niro learning French in anticipation of lengthy French dialogue, only to be disappointed that he had to speak only a few French words for the entire movie).
Frankenheimer also says he agrees with the studio’s desire to change the ending after a test screening, but after viewing the original ending that is supplied as a bonus feature on the disc, I’d have to say this is one of the usual times that the original ending is better. It does supply less closure than the feel-good version released in the theaters, but I was thinking about the more unsettling ending a week later, and that lasting impact can be the difference between a good action film and a great action film.