His career as a director spanned seven decades, starting in the Forties with a small job on an early religious program and ending in 2000 with the action-mystery Reindeer Games. With such meager and lifeless bookends, one might question the abilities of director John Frankenheimer, who passed away shortly after his final film at the age of 93. But as poet laureate for Generation Z Miley Cyrus so eloquently sings, “It’s the climb,” and Frankenheimer’s climb was one populated with a tense body of expertly crafted films that brought action and suspense to breathless new heights. His last great work paired him with a tight script and three brilliant actors for some of the most dizzying and fun car chases this side of The French Connection. But in this week’s Reel Rumbles, Ronin has some fierce competition out of Michael Mann, another talented director, with a film that many consider to be his finest hour. A loose remake of his previous made-for-TV effort L.A. Takedown (1989), Heat won the praise of critics and audiences alike, and built a bridge between an overlooked cadre of masterpieces and a prominent career for the director that continues today. Study the blueprints, sync your watches, and get ready for the big score. It’s time for Heat vs. Ronin.
There isn’t as much to be said for story this week, as these are two films that owe most of their debt to performance and direction, especially the latter. On the surface, there isn’t anything new. Heat is a heist film, pure and simple, about a gang of master thieves led by the ruthlessly loveable Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). McCauley is the kind of guy you may have chosen to root for in a previous Mann outing. (Thief comes to mind.) But here, there is something a little rougher, a little dirtier, a little more violent. He is dangerous, but most of the time that danger is contained to those who deserve it. It isn’t until Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) picks up his trail that we begin to see what McCauley is capable of. He has no reservations about killing anyone, even if it’s one good cop just looking to do his job. And the job is everything to Hanna, consuming his personal life and three failed marriages in its wake.
In Ronin, De Niro crosses the bad guy picket line and plays Sam, an ex-CIA agent, who now acts as a modern day ronin, or a warrior without a master. He is a hired gun without a country roaming the landscapes of Europe with a mysterious suitcase in his sights. He seeks to obtain the suitcase for his employer, but to do so he will have to enter a dangerous competition of sorts where operatives from all over the world who share his situation want the same thing. In Ronin, the ally you thought you had could become your enemy, so it doesn’t pay to trust anyone. As for the suitcase, what could be so important to warrant this kind of hazard pay? That’s none of our concern. What we care about is watching these men walk the line between mercenary and survival.
Ronin’s characters, particularly Seamus O’Rourke (Jonathan Pryce) are not as well drawn as I would like them to be. In contrast, Heat does such a good job with McCauley and Hanna that it becomes immaterial whether or not the supporting players get any attention. They do, but they are extensions of the world around the main combatants, and the movie never loses its focal point as to who the story is about.
As a result, Heat takes this round 10-9.
Heat gathers a lot of momentum in the decision to keep its two titans apart for most of the nearly three-hour runtime. This decision ratchets up the intensity for those moments when they finally do clash, first mentally and last physically. Mann knows how to write. He’s a master with pacing and the elements of story, and his dialog is manageable. Getting to know McCauley and Hanna separately forces viewers to care about their goals and their lives. It toys with your emotions and puts you in a situation where you have to feel something no matter how it turns out. The J.D. Zeik-David Mamet (as Richard Weisz) screenplay for Ronin is not quite as effective in building its characters, but it is riddled with good dialog – after all, it is Mamet – and presents a full, complete protagonist that keeps the on-screen mayhem on par with that of Heat.
The script is in good hands no matter how many co-writers you place in Mamet’s care, and as such, it is one area where Ronin is able to subdue its opponent, 10-9.
Adding to Ronin’s appeal are the talents of the formidable Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard, and a respectable turn from former Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt. But despite these reliable faces and the presence of Jonathan Pryce, Ronin really owes the quality of its performances to De Niro and Reno. Pryce simply doesn’t have enough material or brass to pull off what Frankenheimer asks him to do within the allotted time. He is an amazing actor giving an average performance for an underdeveloped role, and while that is somewhat disappointing, the dynamic between De Niro and Reno is strikingly familiar enough that it does an adequate job of tightening the slack. These two seem like they’ve done previous work together, and are now hitting their stride. Had Ronin been able to add about twenty minutes of length for the purposes of filling out Pryce’s character, it could have been something really special. And on the topic of development, Heat makes the wise decision of not rushing anything. Yes, it is the first on-screen pairing of De Niro and Pacino (and the only one worth mentioning), but it is also an extraordinary ensemble piece that captures Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, and the always reliable Mann staple Tom Noonan, at high points for their abilities. There is something special about each of their characters; and don’t forget about Natalie Portman!
In this round, there is no question: Heat, 10-8.
In my mind, Michael Mann is the most talented underrated director to ever come out of Hollywood. To date, his only film to garner any love from the Academy is the bland, obvious, and uneventful The Insider (1999). And it didn’t even win. Meanwhile, masterpieces such as Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Heat have been looked over or shunned outright when in reality they’ve belonged on “best-of” lists in each of their respective release years. While I cannot say Heat is my favorite of these efforts, it is definitely a perfect storm of Mann’s talents as a writer and director and an all-star cast leaving their best on the field of play, so to speak.
While there is an excellently orchestrated heist sequence, the moments that stand out and show his genius are the two — that’s right, two — scenes that his stars share within the film. The first is a back-and-forth sit-down showdown that succeeds because Mann simply lets his actors do their thing. While the writing is stellar, it would be a lesser accomplishment in the hands of two average actors (or the De Niro and Pacino of today, for that matter). The second owes everything to Mann’s stylish abilities as his stars once again meet at night in an airfield for their final confrontation. Mann has always known how to lather on suspense in his climactic set-pieces and here is no exception. His use of sound and silence, darkness and light, is all he needs to place and keep viewers on the edge of their seats. It is vintage Mann building on fifteen years of experience with all the right elements in place.
Likewise, Frankenheimer hearkens back to past strengths and makes one last unforgettable mark in the world of film. Drawing on previously adrenaline-fueled efforts in his filmography such as Grand Prix (1966), The French Connection II (1975), Black Sunday (1977), 52 Pick-Up (1986), and Dead Bang (1989), Frankenheimer creates masterful action scenes and destroys a lot of cars with the help of top-notch stunt coordinators Jean-Claude Lagniez and Patrick Ronchin. Frankenheimer’s insistence on using stunt drivers and real-time effects pays off with several chase sequences that can safely be counted among the best of all time. What wins the round for Frankenheimer is the knowledge that in his great career, this is some of the best work he’s ever done, and a terrific legacy to leave behind for audiences old and new. He knows what his film’s strengths are, and he takes special care in making sure they are perfect from the aforementioned vehicular mayhem to the gorgeous European locales. If this match-up were between Last of the Mohicans and Ronin, the outcome would probably be different, but at the final bell, Ronin takes it, 10-9.
Ronin leaves a mark. It’s hard-hitting, metal-crushing trips through the streets and terrains of Europe are sights to behold one and all. Frankenheimer doesn’t waste a minute and clearly photographs the action so that it is easy for viewers to keep up. But with the deeper characterization of Heat, the action and dialog scenes are of equal measure, riveting for all of its nearly three hours even when nothing is “happening.” It’s always more difficult to hold a viewer’s interest for three hours. There is a reason films like King Kong (2005) and The Good Shepherd (2006) struggle. But Heat has no problem whatsoever, and uses all of its many qualities to vanquish a strong opponent. Make time for both films if you haven’t seen them to decide for yourself – but in this ring, the scorecards say Heat by UNANIMOUS DECISION.