Published on June 12th, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Because You’ve Seen The Bourne Movies So Many Times
Kim continues his series of snarky commentaries on lesser known alternatives to classic movies. This week, he gives us a nice hot tip on the spy gem, Ronin.
James Bond is still the #1 spy in the world, or at least the best known. Once the Ian Flemming character first sprang to life on the big screen in 1962 and the world fell in love with the handsome, athletic and, ummm…lascivious Sean Connery, the spy movie game was on, full-tilt. And why shouldn’t we love such movies? Everyone loves spy shit. The gadgets, girls, guns and car chases are enough to fill the theatres and sell hot buttered popcorn. Great spy movies go a step further, taking the audience on a thrill ride of cloak and dagger missions, espionage, et.al, and we delight in the strategies, quick thinking, and tricks of the trade that only spy movies can provide. The skill to making a secret agent movie re-watchable is using the devices everyone expects in unsuspecting ways. An example of this would be the different placement of a mole in Mission: Impossible (1996) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). Both re-watchable, both extremely different in tone.
Spy movies are aplenty because each different iteration of them can find an audience. Spy Kids (2001) for children; True Lies (1994) for the ridiculous; The Conversation (1974) for the patient audience; The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) to voice the black community; Duplicity (2009) for romantics; Bridge of Spies (2015) for people who like to sleep in front of the tv, and North By Northwest (1959) for the cinephile perfectionists.
In 2002, a new series emerged to provide a franchise vehicle for the unstoppable Matt Damon, who was clearly on his way to the top of the Hollywood A-list. Damon would make four of these movies between 2002 and 2016. After the first three, Jeremy Renner took the lead as Aaron Cross, the manipulated CIA agent in The Bourne Legacy (2012). It was a one-off effort, and Damon returned for the fifth and final instalment.
The original Bourne trilogy is the best known and most loved of all five, and they are fantastically well-balanced movies that manage to be engaging, smart, fun, and not absurd when the action peaks. The music scores are taut, the shaky camera work done with better effect than most attempts, and the pacing is (mostly) fluid. The car chases, fights, and weapons play are exciting, and the sets make the average North American feel like they’ve just toured Europe intimately for two weeks. So, where do I go when I’m hankering for more intelligence operations but have watched the Bourne movies too many times?
In 1998, director John Frankenheimer made a movie simply titled Ronin. His career would effectively end two years and one movie later with (ugh) Reindeer Games staring Ben Affleck. So Frankenheimer went out with a whimper. But in 1962 he made The Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra and there’s little arguing the sterling reputation of that movie. The director had his moments, and none finer than Ronin. The tremendous cast was led by Robert DeNiro as Sam, a man desperate enough to take a job with a mysterious crew for reasons he doesn’t clearly understand. We add Vincent (Jean Reno), Spence (Sean Bean), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) to the team, who are directed by Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), the representative to the group’s mysterious benefactor.
The Bourne Identity has a brilliant introduction where our protagonist begins the first few minutes of the movie just as lost and without context as we are–literally lost at sea. He doesn’t know who he is, and we get to follow him as he searches to find out. Everything that unfolds to Bourne unfolds to us because we were with him from the beginning. Ronin begins with a job (money for guns) and like the rest of the group, you’re not sure why you’re there or who to trust. But you know that Sam looks like the man, so you follow along with him. Cautiously. The pace will rise and fall, and while it doesn’t sound exciting to watch someone get ambushed with a cup of coffee, when it happens, it’s surprisingly effective.
The acting is superlative, and the car chases are truly exhilarating and frightening. In this department, Ronin might have a short list of peers–The French Connection (1971) and Drive (2011) come to mind first–but I can’t think of any movie with a car chase that is clearly superior to or more nerve-racking than Ronin. Over 300 stunt drivers wrecked 80 cars to make this movie. The cars are as enviable as European fashion or cuisine, and the backdrop of France is magnificent and diverse.
Similar to some of the tactical actions in the Bourne movies, in Ronin we watch as Sam makes himself virtually invisible in front of a crowded hotel lobby as he gathers intel like a pro. This is what real spy work is probably like–just clandestine information gathering for future use. However, that alone is boring in movies. We need action, but not to the point it reaches silliness, or you end up with a Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) which thinks it’s The Third Man (1949).
Just as you watched Bourne chase his identity, you will watch everyone chase the silver briefcase. If you don’t know what a McGuffin is, this particular utilization would make Hitchcock proud. The item of desire isn’t important, it’s about what that objective makes people do. It allows interesting characters to unravel, and the entire cast is so well paired to their role, each of them convinced me with ease they belonged in the landscape.
It’s DeNiro that has the bigger challenge, and he delivers brilliantly. When Ronin was released, it came right after Jackie Brown (1997), Cop Land (1997), Sleepers (1996), Heat (1995), and Casino (1995), so I could have (should have) been distracted throughout by thinking of any one of those characters. Yet all I saw was Sam, and I kept wondering throughout the movie who he really was.
It irks me that Ronin lost money at the box office (about a $15M loss). That might indicate to people it was a flop and not worth your time to revisit. But don’t deprive yourself of a spectacular spy movie. If you have seen the Bourne movies too many times but still want more, then “get smart” and watch Ronin.
Next week: Because You’ve Seen Terminator 2 So Many Times