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My favorite hero moment of any action flick is the self-stitch. You know, that scene where the fallen champion grits his teeth, yanks a bullet from his belly or arm, then calmly sews it all up again like a grandmother darning a sock. Maybe it’s because I graduated college without so much as the ability to balance a checkbook, but this ultimate act of self-reliance always captures my imagination. Rambo in First Blood is the Godfather of the self-stitch, and Paul Bettany has a classic one in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Ends of the Earth. But for me, the king of the self-stitch (or the near self-stitch) is Robert De Niro in the 1998 gem Ronin. The legendary actor has never been more honest in an absurd moment than halfway through the movie, when he’s directing the extraction of a bullet from his gut. Once removed, he examines the bullet as if it were a finely carved jewel, admiring its craftsmanship and technology before delivering a classic line from uncredited screenwriter David Mamet: “If you don’t mind, I’m going to pass out.”
Ronin is that bullet, admirable for its velocity but so rewarding upon closer consideration. A cat-and-mouse, Uzis-and-Audis chase through the France that gleamed from the travel brochures that graced your parents’ coffee table, the film stands apart from the morass of bloated ’90s thrillers. Yes, it shares the blast-’em-all-to-hell teen boy ambitions of its counterparts, and has the best car chases ever filmed, but the movie is driven by something more trenchant. Where Ronin separates itself is as a thrilling vehicle for Mamet’s curt fascination with business and mercenary ethics, and for legendary director John Frankenheimer’s lifelong obsession with international affairs, treachery, and machinery—both of the political and eight cylinder variety.
Set at the end of the Cold War, Ronin is a McGuffin of a caper movie, with a United Nations of rogue former state operatives teaming up at the behest of Deirdre (Natasha McElhone), a gimlet-eyed Irish woman with Pre-Raphaelite hair, to snatch a never-opened silver case from well-armed mercenaries looking to sell it to the Russians. (What’s in the case? Beats me—maybe Ving Rhames’ soul left over from Pulp Fiction.) The crew is made up of an amalgam of top-shelf character actors—Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth—and led by De Niro, still in classic, no-nonsense mode. (The next year he would make Analyze This, thus beginning his baroque, ironic Meet the Parents era). Here, De Niro is all business with a smile, whether building a lifelong partnership with Reno through a couple of sidelong glances or describing a torture experience with another Mamet classic, “It wasn’t pleasant.”
The true star of Ronin is its director, Frankenheimer, who took incredible pride in handcrafting the film. “We didn’t use any of that computer shit,” he would later brag. “Everything you see, we really did.” From the waltzing steadicam to the deep-focus framing to his dramatic shifts from low to high angles for the action sequences, the film is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, every shot expressive with none wasted. While the movie is chiefly remembered for the incomparable car chases through the Old Town of Nice and the Parisian tunnels, Frankenheimer himself considered the film something deeper, citing as his chief inspiration Carol Reed’s Vienna-set noir masterpiece The Third Man. Whether it stands up to his seminal ’60s films The Manchurian Candidate or the less remembered but the no less wonderful The Train is a matter for debate, but it stands as a rare moment where a full-bore ’90s action extravaganza came close to achieving such artistry.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to pass out.