Archive for September 25, 1998


September 25, 1998

9cYOyZo5rXQxwnPhHj4YX8YfCXQRonin is what you’ve been waiting for. If you’ve sat, bored and resentful, through any number of Hollywood “thrillers” weighed down by one incompetent decision after another, Ronin is the movie you really wanted. The movie is unapologetically pulpy — it even includes several examples of Roger Ebert’s famous Fruit Cart cliché — but it’s a beautiful piece of work: elegant without being ponderous, complex without being complicated. It’s also a triumphant return to form by director John Frankenheimer, whose The Manchurian Candidate is now considered one of the great American films. Ronin isn’t quite in that league, but at least it’s playing the same sport.

In Paris, a motley group of mercenaries are assembled. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: find a gray metal suitcase and steal it. Any questions? The bare-bones abstractness of Ronin has a rigorous purity that the long and boring Heat, a three-hour epic about a cop trying to catch a thief, could only dream of. I’d call the movie meat-and-potatoes, except its flavor is too European for that. With its international cast, art-house feel (cinematographer Robert Fraisse and composer Elia Cmiral can take a bow), and steady pulse, Ronin is like an amped-up ’90s rewrite of the ’60s cool-crime movies of Jean-Pierre Melville and Seijun Suzuki. Not to mention The Usual Suspects, John Woo, and everything in between.

The script, by J.D. Zeik (who conceived the story) and David Mamet (who reportedly did a page-one rewrite and took a screen credit as “Richard Weisz”), sketches in the characters: Sam (Robert De Niro), the ex-CIA agent whose antennae are always tuned to danger; Vincent (Jean Reno), a French mercenary; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), a deadpan assassin; Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), the Irish arranger who sets everything up; and Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), who’s connected to Deirdre somehow. The characters are underwritten, but in a way that allows the actors to fill in the blanks — a dangerous move when attempted by filmmakers and actors who don’t know what they’re doing.

The result here is casual magic. Frankenheimer alternates between bang-up action and relaxed dialogue scenes; the connection between the two is the movie’s general loose rhythm. De Niro and Reno are as plausible sipping coffee together (they’re like working stiffs after a long day at the office) as they are driving a speeding car through the tunnels of Paris. Ronin shrugs at its own crisp professionalism, like an assassin who’s no longer impressed by his way with a rifle. On every level, the movie is smoothly underplayed, and the climactic explosive moments really count for something. The events unfold with a neat precision that has to be part Mamet and part Frankenheimer — who turn out to be a dream team.

I never thought car chases could do anything but bore me any more, but Ronin sports some of the most electrifying set pieces since the Mad Max series. The exhilaration comes not from the excessiveness of the destruction but from the snappy rhythm of it, the clear God’s-eye view of who’s where and which collisions follow from other collisions. The result is what’s often referred to as “pure cinema,” and the label fits Ronin snugly. John Frankenheimer is 68 now, and young pups like Michael Bay could learn a lot from this old hand. Ronin feels like the work of a fresh new talent, as, in a sense, it is: Despite enjoyable oddities like 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and taut HBO films like 1994’s Against the Wall, Frankenheimer hasn’t had the success or acclaim he’s deserved, or the right projects for his skills. It’s good to have him back, and great to see him working with such confidence and class.


September 25, 1998

Pecker_avi0040John Waters has mellowed considerably since his 1972 Pink Flamingos, which holds up today as both a work of outrage and a work of very demented art. But if he’s lost interest in shocking the audience, he’s made up for it by refining what his movies, stripped of all the calculated offenses to human decency, have really been about all along: lovingly crafted melodramas, always set in a cartoony-grungy Baltimore, peopled with obsessive caricatures. The key word is “obsessive”: Waters cherishes nothing more than people with one-track minds.

Thus Pecker, whose eponymous hero (named because of his childhood habit of picking at his food) is a compulsive shutterbug, taking snapshots of everything and everyone he sees; his little sister is a shrieking sugar addict, his older sister a cheerful bartender in a gay hot-spot; his grandmother has a talking Virgin Mary in her room; his best friend is an inveterate shoplifter; his girlfriend, a laundromat clerk, is a ferocious stickler for the rules (“You can’t dye your clothes in my washers!”). Pecker has its flat-footed moments, and sometimes unfolds like a banal sitcom about the price of fame, but God is in the details, and these characters and their preoccupations could only emerge from one imagination.

Pecker (Edward Furlong, having fun with an atypically innocent role) captures whatever images catch his eye, however ugly or mundane. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Pecker is autobiographical, as Waters’ films since Hairspray have tended, more or less, to be. When Pecker displays his seemingly artless art, and when it’s discovered by a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor, who’s never looked more glam) and embraced by urban hipsters eager to demonstrate their cutting-edge taste, you know you’re seeing the origin story of Waters’ aesthetic and its gradual acceptance. Like Waters, Pecker makes unlikely stars of the unlovely and weird people surrounding him in Baltimore — a preconscious artist who just shoots whatever appeals to him.
The movie is fast and warmly generous towards just about everyone on the screen — even the art dealer, who in a lesser comedy might have been the villain, seems genuine in her fascination with Pecker’s work. (She wants to make him the next Diane Arbus — that’s her obsession. In Waters territory, anyone who’s obsessed with something can’t be all bad.) Like other twisted directors like David Lynch and David Cronenberg, Waters grew up in a perfectly normal and generally happy family, and his respect and love for Pecker’s oddball but supportive family links the movie to his previous effort, 1994’s Serial Mom, where Kathleen Turner’s husband and children adored her even when she started her killing sprees.

If there’s a weakness this time out, it’s that some of the characters — like Martha Plimpton’s outgoing bartender or Christina Ricci’s laundromat Nazi — are sketched in and then pushed to the side when we want to see more of them. I could have done without one or two scenes of the Virgin-Mary-toting grandma (Jean Scherter) or Pecker’s klepto buddy (Brendan Sexton III) in favor of one long scene with Ricci, Plimpton, and Lili Taylor just sitting around talking about men. Think what Waters might have done with that. In general, though, Pecker is light and bubbly and affectionate, the kind of comedy Hollywood has forgotten how to make. And the spirit of the late, great Divine — the 300-pound female impersonator and one-time star of the Waters troupe — lives on in Lauren Hulsey, who plays Little Chrissy, Pecker’s fructose-crazed baby sister. Little Chrissy’s tunnel-visioned quest for the next sugar high (and the substitute she eventually finds) is 100% pure Waters: she makes us laugh at our own obsessions and fetishes, just like her creator.