Published September 1, 1998
Ronin is directed by John Frankenheimer and is named after the masterless warriors in feudal Japan who, having lost face through failing to protect their lord, are condemned to wander the earth as outcasts and bandits and not even allowed to call themselves samurai anymore. At one point in the film the official explainer who appears in all films like this one — a nerdy, scholarly type who knows all the answers and has a taste for chess or opera or (in this case) historically accurate model soldiers — explains this to Robert DeNiro’s character (called Sam). He tells him the classic story of the 47 Ronin whose lord was killed by treachery and who then lived only to avenge him. When, at length, they did so, they all committed seppuku (the more politically correct word for hara-kiri). Why is that? asks big dumb American DeNiro. Because, says the explainer (played by Michael Lonsdale), they lived by the warrior code, which believes in serving something outside oneself. Having satisfied the demands of the code, “they chose honor.”
“They chose wrong,” says DeNiro confidently.
It is a classic Hollywood moment, like the one in which Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, weary of demonstrating his skill with the bullwhip and facing yet another faceless Arab assailant, simply pulls out a revolver and shoots the man. We’re Americans, the movies love to tell us. Our American heroes get what they want by the nearest way and then ride off into the sunset. Finesse, culture and all that death-with-honor stuff is for foreigners and losers. Presumably the breasts of the audience are meant to swell with pride at belonging to a race of plain-speaking, brawny, anti-intellectual winners like Robert DeNiro. True, he is teamed up here with a Frenchman called Vincent (Jean Reno), and he gets kind of sweet on an Irish colleen called Deidre (Natascha McElhone). But having got lost in a maze of betrayal and counter-betrayal involving the Russians and the Germans and the Irish, he manages to extricate himself with a call for assistance to the only other American on the horizon, a former colleague from the CIA.
All these people are pursuing each other and a wonderful McGuffin (to use Hitchcock’s word) of a metal ice-skate case which even Hitchcock would not have dared to leave so completely unexplained as Frankenheimer does. Along the way there is some nifty gun-play with high-calibre weapons and the usual guts and gore, several satisfying explosions and what may well go down in cinematic history as one of the great movie car chases. But what is it all for? Apart, I mean, from presenting to us model-like poses of that American ideal, the ex-CIA Ronin whose history remains as obscure to us as the reason why all these people are chasing the metal box. Sam is just one more incarnation of the Hemingway hero, the big dumb ox whose freedom and sensuality are bought at the price of a secret hurt he never talks about yet is somehow always thrusting in our face. Will we ever get tired of him? There must be still a market for this version of cool, among not very many others. It comes with guns and disillusionment and sex (though very little of the last here, unfortunately), but not with a story that engages the imagination.