Post-War Malaise & Noir Journeymanship in “Ronin”

“My friend, I need the money.”

The first time I saw John Frankenheimer’s 1998 film Ronin, this line stood out to me. Even before I was aware of larger critical perspectives in media and about influences or any of that, the first time I heard that line, Sam (Robert De Niro) speaking to Vincent (Jean Reno), I knew that this was a different kind of film, far different from the other spy and action films I’d watched before. It still manages to be one of the superior espionage films in so many ways, and every time I watch it I get something different.

What, in hindsight especially, really sticks out about this film is that the deliberate mood it sets seeps into so much more and subconsciously reveals that the true theme of this film;

They’re tired.

Every character in the film is implicitly a “labor” (not “management,” as Jean Reno’s Vincent emphasizes) casualty of the end of the Cold War, cut off in some way to make a living with the skills of violence and capability for deceit that they used to use for seemingly-greater purposes. It’s in here that now, when I watch this film (and as one of my favorite films I do a few times a year) I see the threads of Frankenheimer channeling John Le Carre and his creation of George Smiley, a ground-down and yet, unfailingly-professional and polite spy who can’t help but do what he does even though the varnish of respectability and nationalism that drove Cold War politics and espionage strips off the walls all around him.

And make no mistake, Smiley and his compatriots in “The Circus” are always portrayed as tired. He’s tired of his superiors, of the state of war, of stalemate, of the state of how men and women are ground into paste in the name of things they’ll never be privy to, and how The Job requires him to participate in so much of that. It’s nothing to be proud of, to brag about, and to revel in. To revel in it and be fueled by it is a one-way ticket to trauma and burnout and disgust and self-loathing in spades later down the line.

Similarly, Sam, a former CIA (most likely) operative seemingly-on the run from his old bosses and functioning (like many of the other characters in the film, ex-spies and special operations soldiers now soldiers-of-fortune) in the post-Cold War world, is tired. He sleeps in the clothes he has on because he’s got nothing else, he’s world-weary even in his exposure of “special ops” soldier and guns man Spence (played by Sean Bean) as a fraud, who brags of his weapons preferences like they’re favored toys and goads the others into a discussion of his “anti-interrogation capabilities” that absolutely none of the others feel inclined to participate in seriously.

Sam and Spence clash over tradecraft, and it boils over into a question of “bona fides,” of qualifications and actual useful knowledge in the field, something that can make the difference between life and death, which Spence fails. And the nihilism of throwing himself into this kind of seemingly-petty (on the surface) conflict with a confused man with a gun just to prove a point is interesting, in that it seems to serve two functions;

  1. Showing off just how out of his element the Spence character is by revealing how little he knows and how much he lies, protecting the group from his incompetence (something Sam already does in the gun-buying scene) earlier.
  2. Illustrating in a sort of meta-textual fashion the “reality” versus the “fantasy” of the mercenary/spycraft world. Sam and the rest don’t brag, share personal information other than names, or attempt to discuss their own work histories, because they can recognize that they don’t need to.

Ronin stands out to me because as a film it sets itself up as both an action story (the car chases are notable critically), it’s also much more a spy film in the vein of 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (itself of course an adaptation of the 1974 novel which had also been a TV miniseries in 1979) and Le Carre in general, creating a viewpoint of espionage that specifically is working against the James Bond/Bourne model (though this movie precedes the Bourne franchise by a couple of years).

Everyone seems to know everyone in Ronin, either indirectly or directly, though of course never by name, something that stood out to me while watching it at first, and now I can realize is a result of the common Cold War espionage practice of legends (extensive made-up backgrounds and histories for agents in fields), making names almost irrelevant to espionage. Again, this also flows backwards into the Le Carre influence here, where the names of operatives and operations are completely random, generated purposely to make no sense outside of their immediate context (something interesting highlighted in writer Greg Rucka’s spy comic series Queen & Country about MI6 operatives, who comment on how their operation names are randomly-generated versus American ones, which are symbolically named for promotional purposes).

And who can blame you for being tired when your name no longer matters, not that it ever did in the first place? Like your labor itself, used and used and discarded, retrieved and ordered out over and over by that “management” until there’s nothing more to wring from it? Even if you’re not DeNiro’s Sam in Ronin, living in your clothes and taking sketchy-sounding mercenary work because you absolutely need the money, how could you not be tired and frumpy from living through nothing but that through your professional career and your life?

Spies should always be tired. The world and life makes us tired, and Sam, Vincent, Gregor, and all the rest in Ronin have been tired for so long it’s impossible to escape it even when you can’t help but again get sucked into fighting for something above your pay grade.

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