When we were recently preparing our David Mamet episode, we were struck by the seeming incongruity of his screenwriting credit (under the name of Richard Weisz, which he used in order to protect his “braaand”) for 1998’s Ronin. This led us down the path of an episode about films where the script of an unlikely film was “punched-up” by well-regarded screenwriters. As it turns out, that was quite a short path that led mostly to I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, punched up by the way-too-gifted-for-that-crap Alexander Payne, before being punched down (way, way down) by Adam Sandler. We’re not talking about that, though, primarily because doing so would mean watching I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry again, and once in a lifetime is probably two times too many.
Instead, we’re just going to talk about two 1990s films – the aforementioned Ronin and Michael Bay’s The Rock – that somehow attracted work from two of Hollywood’s most lauded writers of dialogue, discuss whether or not we can detect their hand, and come to some sort of conclusion, I suppose, as to whether it was worthwhile (to the quality of the finished product and us, the audience, that is: no doubt it was most worthwhile to the writers’ bank balances). And I’ll apologise in advance if I talk an unseemly amount about East German figure skaters, but a young boy’s infatuation dies hard.
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I don’t want to take up much time with the plot recap of Ronin, so I’ll get through it as quickly as possible. In fact, it’ll be Ronin 60 Seconds.
In France, a small team is being assembled by Natascha McElhone’s Deirdre to mount a raid and retrieve a case that’s stuffed to the brim with McGuffinium, currently on its way into the country under heavy guard. Said team, who are at least initially cultivating a bit of mystery about their origins and skillsets, are Robert De Niro’s Sam, Jean Reno’s Vincent, Sean Bean’s Spence, Stellan Skarsgård’s Gregor, and Skipp Sudduth’s Larry.
Soon enough we’ll get a bit more detail – Larry is the wheelman, Gregor the tech expert, Vincent the local fixer and Spense is the obvious fraud, and while our point of view character Sam’s background remains a touch more vague, it’s clear that he’s the most competent to take charge of the planning and execution of the heist, navigating the tensions and frictions of the thrown-together team.
While this is initially successful, it sets off a cascade of betrayals and double crosses that sees Sam and crew scrambling to recover from, again and again, and at the risk of spoiling a – checks notes – old as balls film, essentially we can say everyone betrays everyone else, just as those historical ronin notedly did not.
An old axiom holds that everyone has at least one story in them, in screenwriter J.D. Zeik’s case, it seems that one is all he had that’s worth considering at any rate, unless 2008’s Pistol Whipped bucks the usual quality trend of Steven Seagal films. In terms of Ronin at least, I’m not so sure my primary enjoyment comes from the plot, exactly. It’s not bad, for sure, and I should note that this is another inductee in the Scott Morris Hall Of “Of Course I’ve Seen This Film Before, Hang On, Wait, No, I Haven’t”, but even on a first viewing this amount of double-crossing is credulity stretching. It does, however, propel the film onwards at a heck of a clip, and makes for a fun watch, particularly with some better than usual character work, for this sort of thing.
If we are to hold Mamet responsible for all of the dialogue, we can at least divine that he has never been to Britain. Or, England, specifically, as while there’s plenty of bones to pick with the delivery of the Blarney, it’s mainly poor ol’ Sean Bean that’s lumbered with some of the least believable sentences in the film. That’s tempered a little by his character being supposed to be a bit of a fraud, but in any sense this is laying it on a bit thick and the overall quality of this film increases immensely when he stops being in it. Just for once, it’s not primarily his fault.
The rest of the cast fare better, the interplay between De Niro and Reno being a particular highlight, although it could perhaps have shown a touch more restraint in painting De Niro with as much of the bad-ass brush as was available at the time. Still, it’s an effective palette, with some pleasing gunplay and some incredible chase scenes. I mean, it’s no Fast and Furious 8, but, y’know, for the time it’s good. Could really use someone driving a submarine into a skyscraper, though.
Adding to the atmosphere, alongside the punchy pacing and editing, is director John Frankenheimer and cinematographer Robert Fraisse’s efforts to make a film shot in ’97 look like it was made in ’79, with a muted palette and shots that show off the beauty of Paris mostly without the obvious tourist shots that might be easier to go for. It’s a much appreciated bit of visual flair, or, well, perhaps the exact opposite of flair, that gives this a bit of differentiation from contemporary action films, albeit one that audiences did not seem to appreciate going by the lacklustre box office returns.
I recommend that you do not make the same mistake as those late nineties dummies, like, er, me, and catch up with this if you have not. It’s not going to radically change your world, but it will prove an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Isn’t that enough?
Up next is Michael Bay’s 1996 action film The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery as, respectively, Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical weapons expert, and John Mason, an imprisoned former SAS operative and now unperson, who must work together to stop a group of disgruntled former US Marines who have taken over Alcatraz Island from killing their hostages and a good part of the population of San Francisco with some most non-non-heinous nerve gas.
Our unexpected (and uncredited) contributor here is Mr Quentin Tarantino, then hot on the heels of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Why he chose to do this is not something that seems to be widely known, but his association is enough for us, and just be glad that we didn’t go with our other Tarantino option, the Saturday Night Live vehicle It’s Pat: The Movie (no, nor us), which the trailer suggests would make I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry look like Citizen Kane.
The Rock, the last of the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer collaborations, and dedicated to Simpson’s memory (Simpson having died before the film’s release, and whose autopsy was described at the time by the Los Angeles County coroner as being the most toxic in California history, which I know is irrelevant but too interesting not to mention, though I suppose I could have worked it into the film’s dangerous chemicals plot), attracted not just Tarantino to contribute to the script but also Aaron Sorkin and, at the other end of the unexpected writer spectrum, British writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, brought aboard at Connery’s request to rewrite his dialogue. That’s Clement and La Frenais the noted sitcom writers. You know, whose high-octane action film bona fides include such things as Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Lovejoy. I suppose at least Porridge had the prison connection going for them…
As to whether Tarantino’s influence can be felt here, I’m not sure. I feel like there are hints of it in some dialogue-heavy scenes, and perhaps in lines like the one about winners and prom queens and the Alcatraz hostage and future Borat-wife Luenell telling the tour guide, in no uncertain terms, about her gun, and he may have had a hand here and there, but a lot of the film, otherwise entertaining as it is, is clunky and uneven, and rather like a Michael Bay film, in most respects. To damn it with faint praise, it is easily Michael Bay’s best film, and his films, even at their worst, look and act like films, a bar many others fail to clear.
For instance, there’s set up and pay-off, like the establishing scene of Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed, his proficiency in his chosen field and his disdain for the use of atropine as an emergency measure (undermined, alas, by the disguised bomb having a gas mask beside it in the box) or John C. McGinley’s non-standard motion detector. Sadly, this latter, and especially the “Ed Harris’s General Hummel explains his plan scene”, are most painfully of the “as you know, Bob” style, and surely unlikely to have come from the pen of Tarantino or Sorkin, though may well have been the work of yet another uncredited screenwriter, Jonathan Hensleigh, whose credits include Gone in Sixty Seconds, Con Air and Armageddon. I’m also blaming him for the painful, laboured “glass or plastic” line towards the film’s conclusion.
This being Bay’s best film owes much more to the cast than the writing, I feel – Connery and Harris are excellent, and their mere presence elevates things, and Cage is, as usual, great value, though here there are only a handful of sentences that he finishes VERY EXCITEDLY AND LOUDLY FOR SOME REASON. Naturally, this is a source of great disappointment. That said, some of the more dialogue-heavy scenes are amongst the most entertaining, particularly those between only Connery and Cage, scenes notable for a complete lack of cars made entirely of fire (a sin Ronin also commits, as it happens), camp comic relief characters, the fakest old lady crossing the street I think I’ve ever seen, or any of the other stuff that makes this a Michael Bay film. Like the flame machine. You know, the flame machine. A machine, naturally still running in a closed-down prison, that spews flames out of the bottom at regular intervals. Standard equipment in the US penal system, obviously. The flame machine.
The action scenes are at least passable, though, and car chases in San Francisco are reliably photogenic (and the crushing of the hippy-styled VW Beetle by the Hummer does tend to get a chuckle out of me, even if it’s about as subtle as that gigantic, gas-guzzling vehicle itself), and there are a few bits of flair dotted around, like the POV shot of Mason’s knife as it flies towards a Marine’s throat.
While I suspect I’m done with The Rock for the rest of my life (though I had already decided that once, and here I am, having watched it again), it’s easy enough to recommend as a solid 90s action film, with a better, though incredibly uneven, script than you might expect. Really, the biggest disappointment is that instead of Raymond O’Connor as the Park Ranger, Phil Hartmann wasn’t drafted in to reprise his role as Vicky from So I Married an Axe Murderer.
A final acknowledgement to the entertaining but clearly bullshit IMDb trivia pages (which we know from personal experience to be, shall we say, susceptible), that for this film provides such amazing, and clearly true, nuggets as the “fact” that Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered for both the Connery AND Cage roles, as well as Nic Cage’s role in Face/Off, that would have seen him paired with Sly Stallone in the John Travolta role. Please never clean this stuff up, IMDb: I want to live in a world where these things could be true.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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