Running on Empty

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Both of John Frankenheimer’s last cinema features, RONIN (1998) and REINDEER GAMES (2000), are set at yuletide, though the latter, with its heaps of bloodstained Santas lying dead in the snow, is certainly the more festive. Most of the best Christmas films are the work of Jewish filmmakers anyway.

RONIN, which I saw at the cinema when it was new, for DeNiro’s sake, and which I just showed to Fiona, seems the better film, which is interesting — RG has a twisty-turny plot with a killer set-up and an escalating menace and a truly ludicrous volte-face at the end which makes perfect narrative sense, in its demented way, but simply can’t be believed for an instant. RONIN is just about a bunch of guys (and Natasha McElhone) trying to get their hands on a shiny box (well, it IS Christmas). There are double-crosses and there are action sequences and there is, essentially, nothing else.

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David Mamet wrote pretty much all the dialogue and then they wouldn’t give him sole credit so he used a pseudonym. His terse, hardboiled stuff is quite effective here, sparser than usual because everybody is trying to make this movie be like a Jean-Pierre Melville heist flick — the title clearly references LE SAMOURAI. What ultimately elevates the tone into something approaching Melville’s oddly serious pastiche style, is the music of Elia Cmiral, which imposes a palpable melancholy over the quieter scenes.

Frankenheimer and DoP Robert Fraisse frame gorgeously. While the all-real car chases attract most of the attention, with the camera scudding just above the tarmac as we rocket through Paris and Nice (is that fapping sound a burst tire or Claude Lelouch furiously masturbating?), the scenes of plotting and confronting and staring down are so beautifully framed and cut, every frame seething with dynamic tension, with a chilly blue metallic tinge, that I could cheerfully watch a version of this movie without any of the searing mayhem.

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I recently contributed an essay on Frankenheimer to Masters of Cinema’s essential Blu-ray edition of SECONDS. This was subject to oversight by Paramount’s lawyers, who are strangely fussy creatures — they objected to my harsher words about some of Frankenheimer’s lesser works. To my surprise and wicked pleasure, though, the overall gist of the piece escaped their notice — in comparing Frankenheimer to the protagonist of SECONDS, I suggested that he had cut him off from his authentic self and become a hollow shell, making empty films whose most compelling subject matter is their own emptiness. In this regard, RONIN is a brilliant summation.

The whole plot revolves around this shiny box, a pure MacGuffin whose contents are never revealed (doubtless they glow when the box is opened, but it never is). By the end, it even transpires that the box is itself irrelevant, a decoy for an assassin, not what the plot was revolving around at all. And the title, meaning masterless samurai, patiently explained by Michael Lonsdale (yay! Michael Lonsdale!), turns out not to be an honest description of the protagonist. An empty film about emptiness, with Frankenheimer even reprising his shots of boxes and corpses montage from THE TRAIN, which he would re-reprise in his very next film.

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The jarring note is the end, where some idiot has decided the film SHOULD, after all, be about something, and has dubbed in a radio broadcast alleging that the plot had something to do with the Northern Ireland peace process. So all that carnage was in a good cause. This is completely unacceptable — I kind of respected the movie’s ruthlessness in staging shoot-outs and car chases on the streets in which innocents are casually mown down and blown up. I accepted that this was a dog-eat-dog, amoral world we were being shown. To now try to argue that all this collateral damage is somehow JUSTIFIED in a HIGHER CAUSE is the work of a moral imbecile. It feels like a studio afterthought. On this second viewing I’m able to disregard the nonsense, but it throws Fiona for a loop, as does Jean Reno’s sudden internal monologue, which ends the picture. “He never had a voiceover before! What happened?”

“Somebody panicked,” I suggest. To make a truly hollow movie takes guts, something Frankenheimer had.

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10 Responses to “Running on Empty”

  1. I enjoyed this flick, though I missed any echoes of THE TRAIN. Lonsdale is an enviable painter of miniatures, the extraction of the teflon coated bullet is wrenching (you can feel it) and the car chase is fun. I’d forgotten McElhone is in it; which makes it worth another look.

  2. The ending is clear panic. What I found interesting is the focus on the collateral damage. Frankenheimer cuts away from the action multiple times to show some random extras being killed by stray whatevers while none of the characters give even a passing glance. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another potboiler action film that makes it as clear that innocent people are paying the price for the sequences we’re seeing, and it’s a very conscious choice, here.

  3. Harry, definitely, although whether there’s a moral point or just badassery is uncertain. The gleeful slaying of innocents in Swordfish seemed to mark a cut-off point when 9/11 suddenly made that sort of callousness unacceptable. Nowadays it’s fine to decimate a city in wide shot, as long as it’s the action of bad guys, but the heroes’ mayhem is downplayed.

    Fiona gritted her teeth all the way through the bullet extraction, and gazed in awe at the chases. I was swaying in my seat. A very tactile film.

  4. I dislike this film.

    On the plus side, pop just went the Donald’s RGU degree.

  5. Excellent news! He should never have been granted it in the first place. If by any fluke of human insanity Trump has any other honours to his name, I hope he will be stripped of them shortly. There is also talk of banning him from the UK for hate speech. All good.

  6. Oh I DO hope he’s banded from the UK — STAT!

  7. Crayons mentions my bug eyed intensity during the insane car chase sequences, but omits to mention that I kept crying out, “Oh f**k of John Frankenheimer!” during the craziest moments.

  8. As usual, Frankenheimer’s commentary track for Ronin (or for that matter, Seconds) should be worth a couple film school credits at least.

  9. Damn, I haven’t listened to it. He’s fascinating, both as a character and a craftsman.

  10. […] blocking thrills me anew — based on this and RONIN he may be the all-time champ at staging dry exposition in an exciting […]

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