On Blu-ray, Frankenheimer’s Ronin has aged very well in eleven years; it looks like it could have been made today. Let me rephrase: it’s the kind of film I wish were still being made today.
Ronin exemplifies the end of an era in more ways than one. In terms of De Niro’s career, his character is the last role he played straight before he began playing pantomimed caricatures of his persona in movies like Analyze This, Meet the Parents, and Showtime. Arguably, this turn to comedy was a stage of his career necessary to prove he could make fun of himself. Although it has now gotten old, at least he started it self-consciously, unlike Al Pacino who began playing caricatures of himself ten years earlier, except painfully in earnest.
More importantly, however, Ronin is perhaps the last example of classically crafted action cinema that is fast paced yet completely intelligible visually. It was released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, which redefined the grammar of action direction for the next decade. Although eminently appropriate for the reinactment of a war that was itself documented on film, the transparently hand-held camera became a strict convention for the new “viscérité” style, which became consolidated by Gladiator despite its anachronistic application. (The fact that the camera is handheld is not problematic, but how it is used. Relentless shakiness does not produce the intended effect of experiencing a battle first-hand, only the experience of a camera being physically jostled in a battle — appropriate for a war in the nineteenth century, not for one in the second. District 9 is a recent example of the hand-held aesthetic working for instead of against a film.) With the Wachowskis producing the notable exceptions to this new dogma, the epitome of this stylistic fetish was achieved in The Bourne Supremacy, which is particularly relevant because Greengrass’s car chase in the film is the only one since Ronin that has been cited as a possible rival to Frankenheimer’s tour de force.
From Bullitt, Frankenheimer takes (and subtly improves on) the over-the-driver’s-shoulder angle through the windscreen and the use of engines to provide all the music needed (at least, until very late in the Ronin chase). From the first French Connection (Frankenheimer himself directed the sequel), he took the thrillingly low angle provided by a street-skimming camera mounted to the front of a car. The chase(s) in Ronin run the gamut of road surfaces and obstacles stationary and in motion, but it all makes perfect visual sense. Despite the elaborate auto choreography and quick editing, the geographical relationship between the two cars is always clear thanks to photography intended to clarify rather than confuse.
By contrast, the choreography in Supremacy is just as if not more elaborate than in Ronin, but it is impossible to say for certain because it is always unclear what is actually happening on screen. Greengrass’s style is comprised of editorial tricks that are usually employed to hide low-budget effects. Presumably this was not the intention in this case, but the effect is the same. Even if the stunts were of high quality, as they probably were, there is no visual evidence to support it. Instead of being preserved for posterity, all of the talent, effort, and money that went into producing the chase in Supremacy will never be adequately appreciated because it was sacrificed to the idol of fashion, the photographic style of the moment. Ronin reminds us that the convulsive camera is a false god.
Public Enemies and Star Trek are more recent victims of high budgets sacrificed at the altar of faddish style, but this year there were also glimpses of hope from not-so-unlikely places: the genre pictures of Sam Raimi and Stephen Summers provided some fresh breezes of classical, visually intelligible action cinema. If this renewal manages to trickle up into middle-brow action films, then we might again see exciting rather than inexplicable action sequences. Until then, we have Ronin on Blu-ray, where the suspension of disbelief is always enhanced rather than threatened by the filmmaker.