Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Comprehensive Review of the Henchman and Heavies of Ronin

Ronin, the John Frankenheimer espionage and car chase thriller, came out nearly twenty years ago.  The film features an impossible, incoherent plot, inscrutable geopolitics, and De Niro grasping at the final straws of his late middle age action movie career.  But the most important thing to take away from this movie is that is populated by an amazing assortment of henchmen, and the rest of this post is a comprehensive review of all of them.


 Even in a film stacked with malevolent, leather-clad henchman, this is the most aesthetically pleasing heavy in Ronin.  He's bald with bulging eyes and a murderous leer; all of the other henchmen seem to know him because he's the ur-henchman of post-Cold War Europe, like how the Kurt Russell character in Death Proof was known among the stunt person community as "Stunt Man Mike" even in exclusively stuntmen milieus.  "Sergi" (as he is listed in the credits) has a brief cameo in the movie.  He skulks around with his nameless henchman associate, smartly dressed in the let's do crimes ensemble of leather jacket and black beanie, looking as suspicious as possible before wreaking absolute havoc upon a bevy of innocent tourists in an ancient Roman coliseum.  This is an absolute tour-de-force henchman performance, pleasing to the eye, in action and in lurking around looking menacing.  

One of the most delightful things about Ronin is that Frankenheimer fills the movie with spycraft by characters who are at all times acting as conspicuously as possible.  None, though, have as much panache as this top-notch henchman (listed in the credits as "Dapper Gent" just an unbelievably pure henchman character name) who has gone above and beyond by wearing an overcoat without putting his arms through the sleeves.  Surely there is a person who has done this in real life, a man who has decided that the conventions of modern overcoat technology are beneath him and that he must wear his coat as a makeshift cape even knowing that a stiff breeze could blow it off him and down the street as people run out of shops and scream at him "you could have prevented this by using sleeves" but I have never seen this done except in movies.  Look at how brazen this is.  He's sitting at a cafe, sipping on a tiny mug of espresso, carrying a briefcase, and sidling his way over to a fucking van.  Even in the screenshot, look at all of the people staring at him making his big exit while posed like a classical Renaissance painting called The Nefarious Exchange.  This guy meets one of the gorier ends in the movie after being unnerved by another bad guy's gambit to fire a gun that looks exactly like the transformer Megatron randomly at children.  I love everything about this guy and I would definitely watch an entire prequel about him once MGM gets around to launching the Ronin Cinematic Universe.

Stellan Skasgard's Gregor is an excellent villain because he never expresses a single human emotion, all of his plans involve firing guns at innocent people, he tactically covers his eyes every time he's about to shoot a lock off a gate or a briefcase handcuffed to a henchman, and he says things like "I'll find a place to tilt the field to my favor."  But the absolute best moment for Gregor is when he makes a daring escape from De Niro by leaping off a fence and doing some Tom Cruise-ass running while dressed like a disgraced community college accounting professor.

Frankenheimer really lays down the gauntlet henchman-wise in this first tense encounter.  Here he unleashes the Car Henchmen. The first, a fast-talking arms dealer who could not be more suspicious if every single one of his lines ended with the phrase "I assure you, I will not try to murder you" is listed as "Man at Exchange" in the credits, a real tribute to the art of naming disposable henchmen.  But the real innovation is his colleague, who appears in a tunnel dressed exactly like a member of an order of Evil Shriners who attack hospitals in miniature monster trucks.  This encounter takes place in a seedy dock on the Seine-- there is absolutely no way that any human being witnessing an assemblage of these characters: the Homicidal Jazz Pianist, the Reverse Beefeater, and a crew involving Jean Reno, Sean Bean, and Robert De Niro who spends the entire movie looking as nonchalant as a spy infiltrating an Iron Curtain checkpoint with false papers, and not immediately recognize it as a den of criminal iniquity.  These two, along with their entire crew including a bridge sniper, meet a predictably violent end, but Frankenheimer really sets up the world of Ronin as one that involves daring gun battles against a gang that looks like this and then no one remarks on it again for the rest of the movie.

The moment pictured above is the greatest triumph for Mikhi, a disappointing heavy.  Here Mikhi allows for a brief moment of levity as he flees with a precious case in the chaos after the assassination of his girlfriend, a world-famous figure skater played by Katarina Witt who is shot with a sniper rifle in the middle of a performance during some sort of ice capade in the most ludicrous ice rink related climax to a '90s action movie that does not involve Jean-Claude Van Damme impersonating a hockey goalie to prevent the Chicago Blackhawks from inadvertently blowing up Pittsburgh.  The one thing we know about Mikhi is that he dotes on his ladyfriend; to watch him so callously allow her to fall victim to a public execution and then do some Buster Keaton passport comedy undermines his whole bit. He's fine, but is not up to the admittedly impossible standard set by the bald guy, the overcoat guy, and the bespectacled fur hat guy that we've already seen plotting and waving guns around.

Ronin saves its shittiest heavy for the main villain.  Jonathan Pryce is always revealed to be in a crowd, hiding, because his character is on the run as the mastermind of some sort of Super IRA.  Ronin wants you to make sure that you know that he is a ridiculous Irish stereotype because he talks in a cartoonish brogue ("YA STUPID SHITE," he screams at De Niro in their climactic confrontation), slugs whiskey, dresses like an extra in a period-accurate attempt to stage one of the sex plays in the middle of Ulysses, and his name is Seamus O'Rourke.  It's a tribute to the insane geopolitics of Ronin that his death (that occurred in the aftermath of the a high-profile figure skater assassination) is the final piece of the puzzle that allows the United Kingdom and Ireland to come to the Ronin version of the Good Friday Accords because presumably Seamus would be able to stop it by using the case to disrupt the meetings with an array of hearts, stars, horsehoes, clovers and a red balloon.  Pryce does a good job here, but Ronin really needed a better villain than an anthropomorphic accent.  Stellar eyebrows.

Sean Bean here really raises a central question when it comes to the art of henchman review.  It's impossible to rate a henchman by effectiveness since all heavies, goons, and toughs will, by definition, be blundering oafs who die by gun, fist, explosion, and rotating helicopter blade.  And even by that standard, Sean Bean (his character is "Spence" but let's be honest, like Jean Reno and De Niro, there's no point in naming him) is an inept fraud who has no idea how to buy guns from Car Henchmen, how to set up an ambush without killing everyone involved, or what color the boathouse is at Hereford.  But that's his job in the movie-- to be the skittish nincompoop filled with unearned bravado to contrast with De Niro's cool competence and for that he is unassailable.  The one aesthetic problem is that all inept henchmen deserve a glorious death, this one especially since he is played by cinematic death magnet Sean Bean.  Instead, the character is sent away and warned not to speak of his exploits.  We can take comfort in the fact that there is no way that this doofus could possibly go the rest of his life without discussing an arms deal derailed by a bridge sniper and that Seamus would certainly find him and kill him by punching him to death in a posture identical to the Notre Dame logo.

The wheel man is known as Larry, one of the most bizarre henchmen in the Ronin universe.  He's not menacing at all, he doesn't seem capable of skulking and lurking, and while he's the driving specialist, virtually every other character with a speaking role also gets to demonstrate that he or she can drive a car through four lanes of oncoming traffic while only managing to kill a few dozen other motorists when they swerve to avoid them and their cars all instantly explode.  Larry looks like an affable galoot; unlike the henchmen populating this film whose entire esthetic can be described as ostentatiously criminal, he resembles last guy on the substitute teacher call sheet.  His greatest skill is making the ridiculous Mike Tyson's Punch Out face shown above when it's time to ram a car.  Larry meets the most grotesque and violent end of anyone in the movie and you feel sad for him, the henchmen who didn't want to hurt anyone except the innocent people that perish wrapped around concrete pillars while he's driving an Audi at 70 miles per hour through a city designed to repel Visigoths.

Spectacular henchman.  Bald, in sunglasses, and wracked with terror as his car is rammed and chased through narrow streets. "The Target," as he is credited, really gives you everything you need for the guy handcuffed to a briefcase.  The car chases in Ronin are incredible because they are all for the most part real stunts-- according to the commentary on the DVD, the scene where De Niro blows up a car with a rocket launcher involved actually rigging up some sort of explosive under a car and having a stuntman just get sort of safely blown up and then coast around a twisting mountain road upside down coasting on the roof.  During this car chase, Frankenheimer gives a brief establishing close-up of a fishmarket seconds before like twelve cars plow through it because he knows exactly the movie he is making. 

The fish market scene must have been where Frankenheimer planned to insert Ron Jeremy (credited as "Fishmonger" and billed as "Ron Hiatt") to amuse and titillate viewers who wanted to see a squat, mustachioed porno actor gesticulate angrily at a small convoy of high-performance sports cars who have made his mongering impossible, but we will never know because Frakenheimer cut him out.

The discerning reader might question why Jean Pierre here (played by Michael Lonsdale) is included in a henchman and heavy review.  If anything, he is at best henchman-adjacent-- providing sanctuary for a wounded De Niro, performing extremely amateur bullet removal surgery, becoming a magical source of information to allow the heroes to instantly track down everyone they need to, and clumsily explaining the title of the movie via elaborate Samurai miniatures.  But I needed to include him here only because Michael Lonsdale was also in the BBC version of Smiley's People as a bumbling Soviet agent who eerily resembles Crystal Skull-era Dan Akroyd.

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