Viking Night: Ronin
By Bruce Hall
November 19, 2013
Ronin is probably the best samurai movie ever that has no actual samurai IN it. In one of his final films, the late John Frankenheimer lovingly crafts a frenetic, engrossing and often confusing spy thriller/heist that actually gets better with repeated viewing. Being a spy movie, there are a lot of shady people sneaking around, spouting arcane technobabble and getting into spontaneous gunfights with scary looking Russians. There is a lot of scowling, along with several high energy set pieces in gorgeous, exotic foreign locales. There are a lot of knowing nods between hardened, middle aged men who’ve seen and done things that only a peer could understand.
Ronin also contains the greatest car chase ever put to film. Also, like most good heist flicks there is an obvious MacGuffin driving the plot. And of course, there are samurai. Sort of.
The title – Ronin – is a Japanese term for what is basically an unemployed warrior. Back in the day, if a samurai’s master fell or released him, there was no such thing as food stamps. A brother had to wander the land a disgraced mercenary, looking for work anywhere it could be found. The best example might be the legend of the 47 Ronin, who avenged the loss of their master by an unscrupulous rival. Afterward, they committed ritual suicide on the guy’s front lawn because A) it was considered a badass thing to do at the time, and B) toilet papering the trees was not an option, because it hadn’t been invented yet.
The question posed by this movie is whether or not the disgraced can really find redemption through sacrifice, and whether embracing that sacrifice can make you your own master.
The answer begins to take shape as group of mercenaries come together at a pub in France, in a brooding, rain slicked scene right out of a '40s noir thriller. There’s Sam (Robert De Niro), a grizzled former spook who’s in the habit of seeing enemies everywhere and stashing a pistol outside every building he walks into. There’s Vincent (Jean Reno), an avuncular Frenchman who dispenses astute philosophical advice as easily as he pumps bullets into communists. Larry (Skipp Sudduth) is the wheelman, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) is the requisite techno-nerd, and Spence (Sean Bean) is the trigger happy whacko who makes you wonder whether there might have been some gaps in the interview process.
And of course there’s their handler, a beautiful Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), who looks and acts like someone carved her out of a 10,000 year old block of ice. She in turn, answers to Seamus O’Rourke (Jonathan Pryce), an oily IRA radical whose mysterious designs are the reason all these people are together. The mission is to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from a heavily armed convoy of anonymous goons. Deirdre doesn’t provide a lot of details (like what’s in the case, why Seamus wants it and who the aforementioned goons are) but she offers solid pay, room and board, and all the icy stares and barbed epithets you can handle – free of charge.