Although "Ronin" is better than most of what's in movie theaters right now, it also acts as a metaphor for the worst of what Hollywood does. That is, it has one great scene - the car chase that everyone is discussing - and that's about it.
Style over substance, if you will.To be fair, the film does get a boost from a couple of amusing bits of business; a solid performance by Robert De Niro, playing the hero, or antihero; another, shorter chase scene that's also pretty exciting; and lots and lots of things that go boom. (One car bursts into a fireball so easily that I wondered if it was supposed to be carrying gasoline in the trunk.)
But "Ronin" is really running on empty - and it's pretty empty-headed.
Whenever a movie like this comes along - a film with one great moment in an otherwise drab, by-the-numbers exercise - two things happen: Critics fall all over themselves making comparisons to past movies with similar memorable moments, and young audience members who don't know the older movies complain about the comparisons.
A redundant message I get from young e-mailers is that critics have simply seen too many movies. "If you go to everything, no wonder it all looks alike." Or, "If you see enough new movies every year, you are bound to see some that are similar or that resemble older films."
That's true, but it doesn't change the fact that there is a dearth of creativity. Too many screenwriters and too many filmmakers are stealing from each other - or from film history.
Just because Hollywood has adopted the spirit of NBC's summer reruns come-on - if you haven't seen it, it's new to you - does not excuse the continuing lack of originality.
In the case of "Ronin," even the best elements of the chase scene in question aren't new. There have been many other chases that take us into tunnels, or that head the wrong way into traffic.
What makes the "Ronin" chase especially thrilling is the way director John Frankenheimer ups the ante - the cars careen through tunnels that are surprisingly narrow in places, and the wrong-way traffic is of the thick, rush-hour variety. And, as a seasoned filmmaker who knows his stuff, Frankenheimer cranks it up in a terrifically exciting way (though his editors should get credit, as well).
As exciting as this sequence is, however, it's far from the best ever put on film. In fact, two films to which "Ronin" has been compared - "Bullitt" (a 1968 cop thriller starring Steve McQueen) and "The French Connection" (the 1971 multiple-Oscar-winner, with Gene Hackman) - are much better.
For one simple reason: Those chases are in better movies.
A little plot and character development can go a long way toward giving a movie some weight - and "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" offer plenty.
Another comparison that several critics have used is "To Live and Die in L.A." (1985), with which "Ronin" has much more in common. That film is equally thin, and, like "Ronin," it has a nasty streak that is particularly evident when innocent bystanders are killed with abandon.
Of course, if you just want car chases, there are lots of movies that offer 90 minutes of road rage - from "Vanishing Point" (1971) to "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) to "Black Moon Rising" (1986), and many others.
But movies that incorporate an exciting chase sequence into an otherwise compelling film are fewer and farther between.
Most movies just recycle the same material over and over and treat it as if this is the first it's ever been done.
Just look at some of the movies playing around town today. Five minutes in and several other pictures leap to mind:
- "Urban Legend" - "Candyman" (1992), "Scream" (1996), "I Know What You Did Last Summer" ((1997).
- "Antz" - "Hoppity Goes to Town" (1941; a.k.a. "Mr. Bug Goes to Town"), the upcoming Disney animated feature "A Bug's Life."
- "Permanent Midnight" - "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955), "Less Than Zero" (1987), "Clean and Sober" (1988).
- "Armageddon"/"Deep Impact" - "When Worlds Collide" (1951), "Meteor" (1979).
- "Blade" - "The Hunger" (1983), "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat" (1990), "Innocent Blood" (1992).
- "Rounders" - "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965), "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" (1966), "California Split" (1974).
I could go on, but you get the idea. And that's not even considering all the remakes and sequels that are also currently in theaters - "Dr. Dolittle," "Ever After," "Godzilla," "Halloween: H20 (20 Years Later)," "Lethal Weapon 4," "The Mask of Zorro," "The Parent Trap" and "Wrongfully Accused."
Like everything else in Hollywood, even thievery lacks subtlety.