Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Movie Theater: Ronin (1998)

The ultimate mcguffin

After a one-month absence, Sunday Movie Theater returns with another old movie. ^^ Not as old as "Krull" (1983) featured last month, but this one is now 15 years old since it hit cinemas. ^^

Movie poster is from IMDB.

Trailer of the movie.
Video clip is from Youtube. Follow this link to the website if you can't see anything.

"Ronin", a 1998 movie directed by John Frankenheimer. Technical movie details can be seen on IMDB.

Even though the title is a Japanese word, the story is set in Europe, France to be exact, and there's not a single Japanese cast member at all in it. ^^ "Ronin", which means "masterless samurais" is metaphorical in relating to the overall story, and quite subtle at that as well. The word is even explicitly explained by one of the minor characters in the movie, in a scene that seems "optional" to me. ^^ I almost feel that the scene was inserted just to explain to the audience members the idea behind the movie title, as folks who have no idea what that word means who be wondering about its association to this movie. ^^; However, as someone who understood the meaning of the word before watching the movie the first time many years ago, its great story magnificently projected the idea behind the word, and "Ronin" seemed perfect as its title. ^^

"Ronin" is essentially a cat-and-mouse action movie that deals with loyalty and betrayals between mercenaries all chasing after a mysterious metallic case. Without any clue given about their backgrounds, a bunch of characters, including Sam (played by Robert De Niro), Vincent (played by Jean Reno), Gregor (played by Stellan Skarsgard), Larry (played by Skipp Sudduth), and Spence (played by Sean Bean) are gathered by Deirdre (played by Natascha McElhone) to secure a metallic case in France. While the team succeeded in eliminating the case holders, they are betrayed by Gregor who desires to get the case to another bidder. The remaining members of the original team locates him, but another betrayal happens when Seamus (played by Jonathan Pryce), Deirdre's superior interferes. Conflicts after conflicts, a two-way chase between the different parties escalates to a four-way struggle, with those who are desperate for the object showing no hesitation to kill, not just their adversaries but innocent civilians as well. Sam and Vincent must risk their lives to prevent the case from falling into the hands of the very people who hire them to get it in the first place.

The three most intriguing elements of "Ronin" are the story, characters and two major car chase sequences. On the story, even though the idea of mercenaries who betray one another is not new and original, the story is very compelling and interesting to follow. Despite the constant betrayals that happen in the story, not just in Sam's team but among the enemy forces who are trying to get the case for themselves, the story remains straightforward and simple to follow throughout the movie. While the build up - the assembly of the team by Deirdre at the beginning of the story is rather slow, it's still a pretty action-heavy movie, with a couple of extended fight sequences and car chases, so the story is understandably very fast-paced. Despite that, there's no confusion on who's who, who's with who, who's the one holding the case at the moment, and who's giving chase for it. The clarity and simplicity of the story really helps to draw the audience members into the whole movie. As a result of that, all the tension, conflicts, surprises, and revelations feel genuine and interesting to watch. With action movies, especially those involving friendship and betrayals, they tend to focus a lot on the action and fight sequences - the popcorn factors, XD or having very contrived plot twists to create elements of surprise that cause the story to become overly convoluted and confusing. You care about the characters because you understand what is going on. Similarly, you stop caring about any of that when you lose track of what's going on. ^^;

Another important factor that makes "Ronin" interesting is the character design, which is closely tied to the overly story. Arguably, there's not much character development for the important characters in the movie. This is true even for Sam, the protagonist. A slight moment of romance between him and Deirdre gives both characters a special connection and a chance for something more than just partners in crime (XD), but nothing really came out of that relationship. ^^; It does projects a sense of realism though, that the characters only meet one another because of the special assignment in which no sense of belonging or friendship is needed. This is especially true with Sean Bean's character, Spence, a self-proclaimed "weapon expert" hotshot who turned out to be a useless coward. He was booted off the team, as well as the whole movie before the first attempt on the metallic case. For a big-name actor with his name up on the movie poster, that unceremonious axing of his character is almost unbelievable, but as mentioned earlier on, it helps to reinforce the coldness and no-nonsense relationship between the team members.

Sean Bean's character talked too loudly and too much anyway, so he only has his own arrogance and stupidity to blame for such an early exit. Then again, since he's out of all subsequent action scenes, "Ronin" becomes one of the rare movies that featured Sean Bean, yet his character didn't die in the end. XD I'm sure if he manages to weasel into the next major action sequence, Spence is going to be the first to die. XD So, a cowardly exit for Sean Bean's character, but at least he survives. XD

On a more serious note, the lack of character development doesn't bother me too much because of the relevance to the overall story. While their background was not revealed, all of them are middle-aged experienced professionals who seem to know exactly what they have to do to get the job done. Robert De Niro in this movie looks like he would fit right into the "Red" team more than 10 years before that idea was conceived of. XD His age and experience (hinted here and there in the movie but never elaborated on) help him fit into the team well, and while he's the most active member, his character remains the same throughout the whole movie. This setting is true for Vincent, Gregor, and Larry as well. Vincent, played by Jean Reno follows the character archetype set by the actor himself, and he performed the "role" superbly in this movie. XD Cold and calm in whatever he does, the character is perfectly Jean Reno-esque in this movie. ^^

Because of their roles, none of the characters are "good guys" per se. XD However, despite the lack of character development, there are various scenes in the movie that help the audience members to identify with the characters. On one end, there are calculative extremists like Gregor who would try to kill a child "to prove a point" after he left the team, and on the other end, there are members from the original team like Sam and Vincent who take care of one another. In actuality, their friendship doesn't take away the fact that so many civilians are killed and property damaged because of their "mission", but in the context of the movie, some of the plot points do help to make it clear who we should be rooting for in the chase that involves so many parties.

Speaking of the chase, the third most interesting point about this movie is the action sequences, particularly two major car chases that happens in the middle and towards the end. Similar scenes would feature tons of CGs in movies today, but in "Ronin", the cars, drivers, the roads where the chases take place are frighteningly real. ^^ The first car chase where the team pursues the case while trying to get rid of the accompanying vehicles in their adversaries' convoy was an absolute delight to watch. The second major car chase, which features Sam and Vincent going after Seamus, Deirdre and Gregor is not only longer, but happens during morning rush hours, and it's just unbelievably chaotic, wonderfully so I should add. ^^ The number of vehicles and people involved, the extend of the damage, and the amazing camera work in capturing all the awesome moments are absolutely amazing. I often go back to this movie just to focus on those two car chases. ^^ Interestingly, to the story writers' and stunt managers' credits, which faction is chasing who and their progress in various scenes can be seen very clearly amidst all the heavy actions. ^^ The balance between action and story, which is often missed in most other action movies, is wonderfully executed in this movie in my opinion.

As the metallic case is such an important item in the whole movie, one would expect that its content would be revealed, or at least hinted by the end of the movie. That's the case with the case in this movie. (Ha!) The movie is a perfect mcguffin in that sense, where the object that is central to the entire story is an unknown from the beginning till the end. ^^ Now that I think about it, the setting is pretty amazing. ^^ Compelling story behind the chase, intriguing moments of betrayals and fellowship, awesome action, and even more action throughout the movie divert the attention that normal audience members would have regarding the object, almost entirely, that it doesn't feel important at all by the end of everything, and that's a solid display of awesome storytelling that is becoming more and more rare in movies nowadays. ^^;

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