1998 is right in the middle of an era in cinema that I have great affection for. The success of former video store employee Quentin Tarantino had been hugely influential and motivated a general expanded interest in independent film and in the value of both movie trivia and the expertise of your local hole-in-the-wall movie rental clerk. Many of the bigger studios had scrambled to put together projects and promote filmmakers who would help to bolster their street credibility and make them seem in tune with the times. While at moments this resulted in some movies that only had the markers associated with the sort of stuff they thought we wanted to see, but none of the genuine connection with the material that had made it interesting to begin with, I’d say the overall result was positive. Creative and idiosyncratic efforts were more likely to get the green light, and I consider that to be a good thing. At the same time, we were still getting a lot of very mainstream movies with pretty varied results, which served to remind us both of the value of earlier studio approaches and of the corporate malaise that independent films were in part a reaction against. It was a fine time to be a movie fan.
Today we’re looking at a couple of crime-themed flicks with pretty different styles and tones. But both are pretty darned entertaining, aren’t they? Let’s take a look at Ronin and Out of Sight and decide which gang of thieves should move forward in our 1998 bracket!
In yesterday’s first matchup, we saw more votes for A Simple Plan than we’d expected, but in the end Saving Private Ryan went home with the win. It has to be considered one of the favorites to win it all, but maybe the winner of today’s contest can knock it off.
First up today is John Frankenheimer’s alternately pulse-pounding and philosophical European intrigue picture, Ronin. The idea for the movie had its origins in the imagination of writer J.D. Zeik, who became interested in the concept of the Ronin after reading the popular Japanese historical fiction novel “Shogun.” Several years later, while staying in Nice, France he decided to set his story there based on seeing some heavily armed guards patrolling. The eventual story made use of the Ronin archetype of a masterless samurai as a reflection of the DeNiro character’s status as a hired gun who had previously worked in a more official capacity under CIA direction. This parallel is drawn during some downtime in the home of a man who takes him in after he suffers a wound, using the man’s hobby miniatures to tell the story of a ronin. There has been some confusion about how the final script was arrived at, however, because prominent playwright David Mamet was brought in late in pre-production to expand Robert DeNiro’s role and to add a female character. Frankhenheimer has stated that Mamet actually completely reworked the entire script, saying that they didn’t shoot a word of Zeik’s original script. But Mamet had a personal rule about accepting a credit alongside any other writer, and since the story was indeed Zeik’s, a pseudonym was used for Mamet, with “Richard Weisz” garnering credit.
While Ronin is a stylish action piece set on the big stage of international intrigue, the characters and stakes in the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight are decidedly smaller picture, but it can be argued that they’re far more personal. George Clooney plays a career bank robber who escapes from prison and immediately targets the home of a man who bragged about having a fortune in diamonds at his house. If you think I gave away too much of the plot in that quick synopsis, you should take a look at the trailer below. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then you probably shouldn’t. Leonard was on a Hollywood hot streak in the 1990s, with successful adaptations of his Get Shorty starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, and Danny DeVito and his Rum Punch taken on as Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarrantino to follow up Pulp Fiction. Although his early novels tended to be westerns, Leonard would eventually become best known for stylish and clever crime dramas that were naturals for film treatments. Much like with Zeik and Ronin, Leonard was inspired to created the novel Out of Sight based on a visual of a figure with a weapon, this time it was a photograph of an attractive young federal agent standing outside a courthouse with a shotgun resting on her hip. Before long he had his story of the woman becoming entangled with an escaped convict in the trunk of his getaway car. The story proved plenty cinematic and steamy, and screenwriter Scott Frank (Dead Again, Minority Report, Logan) won multiple awards for his script, including a Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.