For the better part of the decade, we have been besieged by a constant revamping, retooling and retrofitting of the film noir genre for shock value. What almost all of these films had in common was their social irrelevance. This is not surprising as: a) the intended audience was as oblivious to the travails of the outside world as the directors; and b) the central pleasure of the films was their intertextual flag-waving, their prowess to quote and/or misquote from classics within the genre.
Alas, the jig is up. With the release of Ronin, the gauntlet has been thrown down for the resurrection of another genre: the samurai film. As much as the recent infatuation with film noir seemed an insular parlor game for Gen-X denizens, John Frankenheimer's latest -- and perhaps greatest -- outing lays bare the necessity of using genre conventions to create narratives that speak to the times, not just to salve a generation's wounded psyches.
Even the novice film scholar will remember that the singular genius of Sergio Leone was to adapt Akira Kurosawa's samurai tale, Yojimbo (1961), to the Western and, in the process, deconstruct the conventions of both genres. The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) was a transposition of the ronin, the masterless samurai, to the American landscape and its Manifest Destiny. Leone, working far from the restrictions of the Hollywood system and the puritan values that informed it, was able to provide a commentary on the masking of history behind myth, so crucial to the ideological work of the traditional Western.
Clint's character has no moral authority other than his own desire to get paid. In A Fistful of Dollars (1964), he lets two clans destroy each other, but not before cashing in on their mutual treachery. In For a Few Dollars More (1965), while another bounty hunter avenges the rape and suicide of his sister, Clint busies himself with calculating his reward for bagging a crew of desperadoes.
Money without honor has a name: laissez-faire capitalism. Leone's take on the Western foregrounds this unfortunate truth. Traditional westerns work symbolically through nostalgia, through modern man's longing for meaningful work close to the land, to which he now has only the most tenuous of connections. Thus, the ideals of democracy, particularly nationalism and patriotism, do the heavy lifting, while capitalism carries on with its soul-sapping machinations.
The relevance of the samurai film to our age should be abundantly clear. In their rush to provide stockholders with record returns, the captains of industry forgot to do the necessary psyche-stroking to prepare the populations of the developed world for the much-ballyhooed "global economy." This is the same global economy that teeters on the brink of collapse while tens of thousands of Albanians wait to die of frostbite, let us not forget.
David Mamet, screenwriter for Ronin, has always been a fan of victimology. But this film has no victim, except perhaps History itself. Hence the unimportance of what's in the case: The case itself is a symbol of the inscrutable volatility of power on Earth 1998. Just as money in Fistful of Dollars is a trophy prize unto itself, so to the case. Countless films of recent years have tried to milk the post-Cold War for storylines, ironically with the Russians once again as the bad guys, this time as rabid capitalists rather than commie stiffs. Mission: Impossible (1996), a proto-Ronin, failed to resonate beyond its surface thrills precisely because the characters, save for Jean Reno's, seemed more genre ciphers than believable players in a world in which free agent ronin run amok.
Reno, interestingly enough then, not De Niro, is the key to the depth of Ronin. In La Femme Nikita (1991), he played a "cleaner" for the French Secret Service, no strangers to self-serving geopolitical skulduggery. In The Professional (1994), he played an assassin for hire with a soft spot for a fellow orphan. The only thing that counted for him was the small, volatile world he created for himself before an inevitable death that you knew he accepted from the very first frame.
In Ronin, he seems to be playing girl Friday to De Niro's mastermind, but this is wrong. De Niro time and again defers to Reno, to the gravitas of a man who knows the score on his home turf. He is the real ronin. In the final scene, he debases De Niro of the Hollywood notion that he's going to get the girl after all. "She won't be coming back."
Director John Frankenheimer gives us a Europe much different from the one delivered in his French Connection 2 (1975). The skies are gray, the colors muted, the mood somber. Yes, the virtuoso car chases may look like they're an attempt to out-Friedkin Friedkin (re: the classic sequence from The French Connection, 1971). But they are, in essence, part and parcel of the struggle for the case. A lot of late model sedans meet their demise in this quest -- more the merrier, for we see that the ronin live through material goods, not for them, albeit preferably someone else's.