The second Feature Presentation of R-Rated Movie Club is Ronin.
JUST THE BASIC FACTS
Ronin (1998) | United Artists, MGM, FGM Entertainment
Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone,
Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, and Skipp Suddeth
Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz (a.k.a. David Mamet, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who used a pseudonym as a result of a credit dispute.) | Directed by John Frankenheimer
Two-Sentence Version: A ragtag team of mercenaries are hired to get “the case.” Double-crosses and MacGuffin devices abound!
Fun Facts: Director John Frankenheimer relied on the car chase chops he earned 30+ years earlier when he directed Grand Prix (1966). Similar to last month’s Feature Presentation of The Blues Brothers, there’s a high car count for Ronin, too. If you’d like to donate $1 to your local food shelf per crash, allegedly 80 vehicles were trashed during production.
Why it’s rated R: The official certification is for strong violence and some language.
Does it earn its R rating? For 1998, at least, I think so. We see the gruesome aftermath of an off-camera throat slitting, but we’re just 3 shorts years from flying orc heads in the PG-13 rated Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s a memorable field surgery scene that’s as wincingly intense as it is bloody. The hardest thing to witness is innocent people killed by gunfire. It’s quick and shocking and the characters don’t seem to notice.
PUT IT IN CONTEXT:
Major Theological Themes: The power of friendship, living by a code, being prepared, putting faith or ideas or philosophy into action, the value of living in your master’s footsteps, all good things come to those who wait.
If Jesus told this story, it would be called: “The Parable of the Prepared Servant”
The book of the Bible where it best fits is: The Hebrew Bible or Older Testament with its tales of warriors, espionage, and politics. A group of masterless warriors hired to help a political cause while trying to save their own skins has a history feel to it. Sam and Vincent in Ronin seem right at home with figures who are smart, tough, and action-oriented. Their story could be told alongside Samson or Jephthah in Judges or Naaman the army commander healed by the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings, or - and this is a pretty gruesome and humorous story - Ehud the left-handed assassin in Judges 3:12-4:1. Sam is very no nonsense, and in these stories of war and political cunning in the Hebrew Bible, things are often quick to cut to the chase, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Most “Biblical” Line of Dialogue: Sam (looking at a map of where the job will take place, wanting more first-hand information): “The only thing is that the map, the map is not the territory.”
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Introduction: A Warrior Class of Its Own
There are Robert De Niro movies that most everybody seems to know. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. The Godfather Part II. Meet the Parents. There are action movies that most everybody knows. Mission: Impossible. Die Hard. 25 James Bond movies and counting. And then there’s Ronin, a fall release action movie that was 11th at the box office in 1998, starring Robert De Niro’s icy stare, David Mamet’s punch one-liners, and John Frankenheimer’s crash box camera mounts clinging to the hood of an Audi S8 at 100mph. De Niro had a string of starring roles in the early 90s with Casino, Heat, and The Fan. As the 90s went on, he took on memorable supporting roles in movies like Sleepers, Cop Land, and Jackie Brown. In the late 90s, De Niro starred in two back-to-back movies penned by David Mamet - one a comedy, Wag the Dog, and then Ronin. Then, everything changed. As the 90s turned into the 2000s, De Niro entered self-parody with Analyze This, Meet the Parents, and yes, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. The last 20+ years have seen the amazing actor dance back and forth between satirical comedy and hard-boiled drama ever since.
I think of Ronin (and to an extent Wag the Dog) as this fulcrum moment in De Niro’s career. It makes sense, because his career has a different vibe for each decade. But more than that, Ronin is truly the final Robert De Niro movie before a greater section of the public thought more of his self-referential comedy than, say, his Academy Award-winning turn as Jake La Motta. I mean, when I write that, does everyone reading this essay know what movie I mean there? Can you hear De Niro’s Jake give himself a pep talk in the mirror as clearly as you can hear his Jack Byrnes grilling Ben Stiller’s Gaylord Focker? Sometimes, time does that!
Let’s take a look at Ronin today. We’ll dive into three scenes and the overarching theme of what life looks like when you follow your master. Spoilers are ahead, and check out JustWatch to see where to watch it.
Ronin opens with this preamble: In feudal Japan, the warrior class of Samurai were sworn to protect their liege lords with their lives. Those Samurai whose liege was killed suffered a great shame, and they were forced to wander the land, looking for work as hired swords or bandits. These masterless warriors were no longer referred to as Samurai, they were known by another name: such men were called Ronin.
Ronin is 1 part action, 1 part thriller, 1 part mystery, and 19 parts car chase. Sam (Robert De Niro) is a freelance former-US intelligence agent, a ruthless, masterless samurai, a ronin. Hired to retrieve “the case” by mysterious employers, Sam joins an international rogues gallery that is 1 part teamwork, 1 part conflicting methodologies, and 19 parts double-cross on top of double-cross. Set in the streets of Paris, Nice, and the gorgeous French countryside, Ronin is a compelling slow-burn stew that vacillates from stillness to sonorous.
“Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.” (1:00-7:00)
The movie opens with the aforementioned preamble explaining the title and setting up the vague origins of the characters we’re about to meet. That takes 1 minute of screen time, and then we’re treated to a 6-minute opening scene that is as close to a silent movie as it gets. Sam approaches a pub, scoping it out before going inside, just in case. He walks around back to find an alternative exit, just in case, and even plants a handgun nearby, just in case. When he enters, he asks where the restroom is and purposefully goes to the exit door to unlock it “by mistake,” just in case. This is a rendezvous for some of these ronin to join a team and we’re learning the sort of “just in case” approach Sam lives by in his work.
A bartender, who turns out to be the team’s handler, Dierdre (Natasha McElhone), asks if he’s there for the same job as the other alleged patrons scattered throughout the pub are there for, too. Even here, Sam feigns ignorance a bit, pretending to not know English, just in case. When the group makes their way out the back door and Sam recovers his weapon, he makes his modus operandi clear: “Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.” Right away, we learn this is a movie about deciding who to trust and why.
There are just 18 lines of dialogue in this scene, most of them just a few words, with one line, this section’s title, topping out at 15. Of the 18 lines, two pairs are essentially repeats of each other, and of the total 84 words, 25 are in French and one is “Hmm?” Coupled with these sparse words are exchanged looks, gestures, and knowing nods. What does all of that add up to? It’s an opportunity for modern audiences to experience a modern movie with old techniques. Mute your sound system to watch this scene and you’ll likely be able to follow along quite easily. I wouldn’t tell you to watch Ronin on mute the entire time because you’ll miss out on an abundance of memorable dialogue - the kind of quick quips a playwright like David Mamet is both lauded and notorious for injecting into a script. Still, it’s fascinating how little dialogue is needed in a scene like this. The camera, music, actors, and pacing all do the job together.
We can’t do that with every movie. But if you want other examples, here’s a few. The opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil. The hotel showdown between Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. The basement blackout of The Silence of the Lambs. The crop duster scene in North By Northwest. The opening of There Will Be Blood. The climactic three-way standoff in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And the master, Stanley Kubrick, gave us plenty in The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and the first 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey have zero words, unless you count ancient ape growls. Any others that you would add?
One of the most memorable moments featuring the sounds of silence in scripture is 1 Kings 19:11-13 when the prophet Elijah hears “the still, small voice” of God while hiding in the wilderness. Elijah is a prophet who does what prophets do: speak truth to power, even in the face of potentially high-cost consequences. 1 Kings is in the Hebrew Bible or Older Testament, covering a mix of history and theology of the early Israelite kingdoms. Here, you'll find writing that covers part of the reign of King David, the rise of his successor, Solomon, building the Temple, and so on. If you want to learn more, I'm a big fan of EnterTheBible.org from Luther Seminary; it's free and with scholarship that's both sound and accessible.
In 1 Kings 18-19, Elijah speaking out against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel for their cruel rule over the people culminates in a mountaintop showdown. The king brings 850 prophets to Mount Carmel to represent a god called Baal, while Elijah alone will represent God, or YAHWEH. The prophets of Baal set up a sacrifice in an attempt to invoke their god's presence, but nothing happens. Things are about to get hot.
Like Sam, Elijah sets things up. He watches the prophets' efforts fail, he pokes fun at them to stir them up, he has servants create a center of sacrifice exactly the same as theirs, except he has the wood bundle to be used for a burnt offering drenched in water. You know, just in case. Scripture doesn’t say if those watching poked fun at him, but we can imagine the exchanged looks, gestures, and knowing nods. Elijah sets up a tremendous contrast between the failure of these priests to invoke a false god and the miracle of God as indeed, the fire comes and lights the wood ablaze! Also, the other prophets all get killed. Again, just in case.
Well, you just don’t cross a king and kill all of his prophets without expecting at least a little revenge! Afraid for his life, Elijah retreats to the wilderness and finds a safe house, er, I mean cave. Now, somewhere along the way and likely for many reasons, some scriptural and some artistic, many people think God’s interactions with humankind are bombastic, filled with a booming voice or as Indiana Jones puts it in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Lighting. Fire. Power of God, or something.” But that’s not the case in 1 Kings 19:11-13:
“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God is in the sheer silence. God is in the still, small voice. When life is loud and chaotic and erupting all around us, it may be that in a moment of silence is when we hear God most clearly. Maybe it’s a moment of preparation, or after an ordeal as part of processing. It can be in the midst of what’s going on, a brief breather before carrying on. For Elijah, this still moment is a bridge between a mountaintop display of God’s power and continuing his work as a prophet taking on new disciples. I have often heard people of faith express frustration that it seems like God doesn’t speak to people the way God did in the Bible. They want a big, loud sign. A burning bush. A booming voice. Something so clear you can’t miss it. When they don’t get that in their own lives, they can get dispirited in their own faith.
This is the story I often point them toward, to see a moment when God speaks in a quiet moment. This may indeed be how many of us have our faith moments. I get the impression Elijah didn’t walk onto that mountaintop to confront the prophets of Baal without knowing how he was going to walk out of it. Likewise, he walks out of that cave in the wilderness knowing God is with him. The next time you’re in the wilderness - whether because you sought the adventure or because you sought the respite - may you hear the still, small voice. May silence speak loudly.
This opening scene of Ronin sets up so much about Sam. We know he’s a person who prefers to be prepared. He knows the territory and the culture. He’s reserved with what information he gives out or admits he knows. He is comfortable with silence, with waiting. He has a backup plan for the backup plan. Others will try to mess with him but they will all come to find that even when his plans don’t go according to plan, when he has to improvise, he’s a master at that, too. Keep all of this in mind as we look at how waiting, improvisation, and mastery plays throughout the rest of the movie.
“It would be nice to do something.” “We are doing something. We’re sitting here, waiting.”
Ronin has lots of roaring-engine car chases, muzzle-flashing gun battles, and screaming-panic crowd scenes. Those parts all work, and one of the reasons they do is because of silent, patient scenes like those first six minutes of screen time. But there’s something more. Ronin has been praised for its realistic, perhaps even documentary-style feel. There isn’t a single frame of slow motion action, for example; the violence happens quite quickly. The camera often captures a scene staged to show many characters doing their thing at once. As one character fills the frame in close-up while speaking, you can see another character or two in the background setting up equipment or taking notes. For me, the most realistic part of Ronin is the waiting.
These characters wait a lot. They wait in cars, in cafes, in pubs, in hotels, in vans, in safe houses, in warehouses, on street corners, under cover of night, in broad daylight, and so on. Anywhere can be a waiting room in the world of Ronin! Welcome to Midnight Illegal Guns Trade, take a number and have a seat. We may not enjoy waiting in our own lives. And the idea of watching movie characters wait around, well, that doesn’t seem like the most intriguing footage to pack the trailer with, either. The thing is, the waiting is never in vain, even in an action movie like Ronin, nor is it a wasted moment of screen time.
I think that’s important. Maybe I’m getting old (my kids would take out the “maybe”) but I often walk out of a movie I enjoy thinking, eh, it could’ve been 20 minutes shorter. Waiting scenes? Trim ‘em, right? I get the impulse. Mystery and suspense film auteur Alfred Hitchcock is famous for quipping that “Drama is life with the boring bits cut out.” In his wonderful 10 Rules of Writing, my favorite novelist Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and writing that inspired Jackie Brown and Justified) suggests “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The Bible has many sections that modern readers can find rather skippable. Many it’s because a section is confusing or takes too much work to interpret. Or it feels archaic for “their then” and irrelevant for “our now.” Or it seems boring, and skippable. I know many people who enjoy the Beatitudes but hate the Begats (And Jechoniah begat Salathiel, and Salatheil begat Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel begat…). I admit, there are parts of scripture I am not all that enamored of compared to others (the repetitious rules listed in Leviticus and again in Numbers and again in Deuteronomy, man oh man, I just can’t sometimes). On the other hand, I find some of the lineage listings fascinating, almost beautiful. I remember preaching on the lineage of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17 and the liturgist asked me before worship, “Are you… are you sure?!”
In Ronin, each waiting scene gives you more insight into the characters and their relationships with each other. That includes, and really it just makes me smile, witnessing the juxtaposition between who is comfortable with waiting and who absolutely isn’t. The first time this comes up is at the 17:23 mark of the movie. You can watch a YouTube clip of part of this scene, which ironically cuts out the “boring part” of waiting. Sam, Vincent, Spence, and Larry wait in a car to exchange cash for guns under a bridge. Somebody must’ve put on their Bad Idea jeans that day, because that sounds like a very bad idea indeed. The team’s driver, Larry (Skip Suddeth), is at the wheel. He sighs, then mutters:
Larry: Always a waiting game.
Larry: It’s always a waiting game.
Larry is a driver. He has a need for speed. And he’ll show it off plenty as the story unfolds. Sam knows patience is the way. If you look at the original Koine Greek that Paul wrote in his Newer Testament letter to the Galatians, you’ll know that the nine traits listed as “the Fruit of the Spirit” aren’t individual but linked as a bunch. That said, of everything listed in Galatians 5:22-23, it’s the last fruit that Sam exercises the most: “The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Sam shows tremendous self-control here and throughout the entire movie. Maybe that's what makes us believe his ability to endure the invasive pain of removing a bullet from his abdomen with a little sweat and a mere wince.
While there are multiple scenes of sitting around waiting, there are three scenes total where the act of waiting receives comment. First is the scene I just described. Next, is in the safe house (37:42-38:35). The team is awaiting the good word on whether the mission is a go. Gregor mumbles something to Sam.
Gregor: What do we do?
Sam: We wait.
A moment later, after realizing they’re short-handed, there’s no handler to send them more resources, and a review of photos of the armed security forces they’re up against, Gregor reiterates his feelings.
Gregor: It would be nice to do something.
Sam: We are doing something. We’re sitting here, waiting.
Gregor: Tch. (scoffs)
Again, one team member is exercising self-control, one is not. Without getting into spoiler territory, we’ll see how that pays off for both of these characters soon enough. The third and final scene when the act of waiting is commented on is once again with Sam (1:24:04). He and Vincent sit in a car, watching a regular door on a regular building on a regular street, waiting for irregular activity. It’s implied they’ve been there quite some time. Finally, movement. They see who they’ve been waiting for, and Sam speaks in proverbs.
Sam: All good things come to those who wait.
Can I emphasize this enough? Ronin features some of the greatest car chases ever filmed. They’re fast and, well yeah, they’re furious. Part of what adds adrenaline and speed to the chase is the wait that comes before. The anticipation of the work. This juxtaposition is one of my favorite things about Ronin.
Spence is impatient and has a nasty temper. His attitude causes him to stumble his way through the job and eventually out of it. Gregor is angry with everyone trying to double-cross him; what, can’t a guy double-cross without getting double-crossed, these days? It’s Sam who keeps his cool. The Bible has a lot to say about the impact when humans keep their cool in a simple phrase found in several Proverbs:
Proverbs 14:29 - Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a nasty temper exalts folly.
Proverbs 15:18 - A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.
Proverbs 16:32 - Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.
Likewise, the Bible has a lot to say about the impact of God’s love and mercy when God keeps a divine cool. Again, a simple phrase juxtaposing anger and mercy comes up in several Psalms:
Psalm 86:15 - But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Psalm 103:8 - The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Psalm 145:8 - The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
If you can’t be patient with others, how can you ever expect God to be patient with you?
If you can’t be slow to anger with others, how can you desire God to be slow to anger with you?
I don’t know if I fully agree with Sam’s bon mot that all good things come to those who wait. I do think many good things come to many of those who wait. And I do think more good things come to most who wait. But given his track record in this movie and what’s implied of his covert work before this job, this attitude has paid off for him more than once and I think it will pay off for us.
“Vrrrooooom!!!” (Various Chase Scenes)
There’s one thing I didn’t really write much about in this essay, and that’s the amazing car chases. They are realistic, they are thrilling, they are incredibly well-produced. You can find plenty of clips online with a link or two or three to some of these brilliant Ronin car chase scenes. Or maybe four. Just in case. If you really want to analyze the car chases, you should watch the DVD or Blu-ray (the release by Arrow Video, a boutique movie title company, is phenomenal) with the commentary audio track from director John Frankenheimer. The track is filmmaking 101, and his insight into the car chases is wonderful. I’ll just say the chases remind me of Mark.
When I think of the complementary clash between the slow, steady, silence of the waiting scenes and the quick, slick, revved-up chasing scenes, the Gospel of Mark comes to mind. Matthew and Luke take their time to let the story of Jesus unfold; they each start with the Nativity story. John goes back even further, to a cosmic beginning of all things. Not Mark. This gospel starts right in at the baptism of Jesus. In 28 short verses, there’s a prophecy fulfilled, a herald proclaiming Jesus’s arrival, his baptism, his first sermon, his temptation in the desert, his first disciples, his first healing, and the first spreading the word of his work. Vroom, indeed!
The Gospel of Mark has a reputation as the fast-paced gospel, getting right to the point. For example, in Matthew 3 and Luke 3, the heavens “open” when Jesus is baptized. Yet in Mark 1:10, the heavens are “torn apart.” Who’s going to open with time to spare? All we have time for here is to tear! You can see this quickness in Ronin not just in the car chases but in scene transitions. When the team escapes the gun deal gone south, Frankenheimer uses a jump cut to get us zooming through the streets of Paris. After Sam ambushes Spence with a cup of coffee, we go from quiet and subdued closeups to loud and winding crane shots of gear being moved with a powerful winch (I admit, I’ve reached the point where I anticipate this scene and just turn it down before it happens, it’s so loud!). Anytime the filmmakers can amp up the pacing, they do. For a bit more on this intentional way of filmmaking, listen to John Frankeheimer’s great director's commentary on DVD or Blu-ray.
“There’s something more.” (1:20:05)
Let’s wrap up with a talk about employers and crews. Lords and samurai. Masters and servants. We have a demonstration of each through Ronin and a single scripture verse that speaks volumes of lived experience throughout the centuries. Let’s start with the employers and the crews in the movie.
Some people have heard me say one of the most tired story tropes that I can’t stand is when people don’t just talk to each other. If I wanted to watch people not talk to each other, I wouldn’t spend time, energy, and money on a book or show ticket; I’d just watch real people! There’s a certain movie that my family really enjoys but I don’t ever want to watch again because things literally nothing would have happened if people had just told each other their secrets. In fact, a certain character literally says, “Of course, none of it would have happened if she’d just told me her secret.” Aaah! Anyway, I typically tune out for that kind of story. It works for me in Ronin. Not knowing who is who, or why people do what they do, that uneasy mystery is at the heart of everything these characters do. If everyone was on the up and up, there wouldn’t be a need for handlers, subterfuge, double identities, safe houses, and all the other delightful twists and turns of the story.
One question keeps coming up throughout Ronin: Who are we working for? Before the guns-for-cash exchange, Sam asks the question aloud to Vincent, Larry, and Spence in the car:
Sam: Who’s this girl work for?
Spence: Well, she works for our betters. Seems that’s what we’re meant to know.
After the guns-for-cash exchange becomes a we-take-the-guns-and-keep-the-cash shootout, it comes up yet again. Vincent thanks Sam for saving his life, then wonders out loud why they’re risking their lives.
Vincent: Thank you. Why did you take this job?
Sam: My friend, l need the money.
Vincent: The money is here. That's what this is, you know?
Sam: Yeah, but who are our employers?
Vincent: You're right.
Sam keeps raising the question because even a masterless mercenary likes to know where the money is coming from. He even asks Diedre in a more subdued way in the first conversation about the job. He asks about who they’re taking the case from, even if Spence seems to take issue with that:
Sam: I’m just trying to get a vague notion of the opposition. We’re going to cause some animosity. How many will be coming after us?
Spence: You worried about your own skin?
Sam: Yeah, I am. It covers my body.
This is Sam’s way of saying tell me who you are so I know how much trouble I’m going to be in if they come after me for working for you. That’s a fairly reasonable ask, in his line of work. But Sam isn’t the only one asking questions. When Vincent takes him to a safe house for recovery from a bullet wound, his contact, Jean-Pierre, raises questions about who Sam is really working for:
Jean-Pierre: But who is he?
Vincent: That's not important.
Jean-Pierre: Didn't he work for the ClA?
Vincent: He used to.
Jean-Pierre: Not anymore?
Vincent: He's on the run.
Jean-Pierre: You're sure?
Later, Vincent will try to broach this subject directly with Sam, and as close as they’ve gotten on this job, now that they’ve both saved each other’s life, Sam still defaults to secrecy. Maybe it gives Vincent plausible deniability in case he’s captured, but either way, Sam isn’t speaking:
Vincent: Under the bridge, by the river, how did you know it was an ambush?
Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you.
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I don't remember. That's the second thing they teach you.
This crew - Vincent, Spence, Larry, Gregor, Sam - they are all mercenaries. Hired for skills, hired for cash, hired for no questions asked. They’ll exercise their skills. They’ll be promised more cash. They’ll keep asking questions. Even if one of them actually knows the answers about his employers already.
They’re masterless samurai, what’s known as “ronin.” Here’s the explanation of the 1700s Japanese historical event turned legend, in an exchange between Jean-Pierre and Sam:
Jean-Pierre: The 47 ronin, do you know it? Samurai whose master was betrayed and killed by another lord. They became ronin, masterless samurai, disgraced by another man's treachery. For three years they plotted, pretending to be thieves, mercenaries, even madmen. And then one night they struck, slipping into the castle of their lord's betrayer, killing him.
Sam: Nice. l like that. My kind of job.
Jean-Pierre: There's something more. All of them committed seppuku, ritual suicide, in the courtyard of the castle.
Sam: Well, that l don't like so much.
Jean-Pierre: But you understand it?
Sam: What do you mean, l understand it?
Jean-Pierre: The warrior code, the delight in the battle. You understand that, yes? But also something more. You understand there is something outside yourself that has to be served. And when that need is gone, when belief has died, what are you? A man without a master.
Sam: Right now, l'm a man without a pay cheque.
Jean-Pierre is telling Sam, I know this is more than just money for you. I know this is about something bigger, and while you don’t have to tell me, I can see this and I am telling you that I see this. Sam doesn’t blow his cover. He keeps pretending to be a mercenary - just like a good little ronin! He doesn’t commit seppuku, but for his greater cause, he takes two bullets, one of them in the stomach, right where seppuku would happen. He recovers and lives to fight another day, or maybe open a bar some day.
Jesus very famously says no one can serve two masters almost smackdab in the center of his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either they will be devoted to the first and think nothing of the second. Or, be devoted to the second and despise the first. No one can serve God and money.” I don’t think Jesus is saying anything is inherently wrong with money. Like anything, it’s what Sam would call a tool for life. “It’s a toolbox,” he says, “You put the tools in for the job.” It’s what we do with it, and our attitude around it, that can be noble or be a problem. Those attitudes about money (and power, and all that comes with it) can rule us instead of serve us. We become a slave of the money.
Everyone who serves money (and power and all that comes with it) in this movie either switches to a greater cause, was secretly serving a greater cause all along, or ends up dead. Everyone who serves something greater - friendship, loyalty, international security, love, and so on - they all end up alive at the end. I can’t say they all win, but in a movie like Ronin, living to fight another day could be considered a big win. Don’t believe me? Just ask Sam, based on his conversation with Jean-Pierre before they talk about the 47 Ronin:
Sam: I knew a lot of fellas, friends of mine, they just wanted to live to open a bar.
Jean-Pierre: Had they lived, would they have done it?
Ultimately, it was never about the money for Sam. He risks blowing his cover with Deirdre (1:50:50):
Sam: Just go.
Deirdre: Come with me. Forget about the case.
Sam: l didn't come for the case. l came for your boss. l came for Seamus. l came for him. Just get out of here. l never left. Don't you see?
Sam played the part of ronin amongst masterless ronin, but never stopped serving his master. He never left. You can question the ethics of the job his master - his US intelligence agency - gave him, but Sam’s ethic to see the bigger picture, the code of living, the understanding that there is something outside of himself that has to be served. That is what life is when you serve a master better than you on your own.
That’s the point Jesus is making in the Gospel of Matthew. You and I have a higher calling than any temptations that come with pursuing money, power, and all that comes with it. These can be “tools in the toolbox” for the bigger picture if you keep your focus on the big picture, if you serve the right master. While I think living your faith “out loud” is always a good move, I understand why so many people of faith keep quiet about it while letting their actions speak for them. Kind of like that opening silent scene of Ronin, perhaps?
There’s a well-beloved line out there about living out one’s faith: “Preach the Gospel whenever possible. If necessary, use words.” While often attributed to Francis of Assisi, it’s almost certainly apocryphal, neither appearing in his writing nor in scripture, for that matter. I’m not often one for lifting up phrases like this with murky origins and a pithy payoff, but I like this one. Its point, essentially, is one should share the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, the way your faith enhances your everyday life. And, while words can inspire and good stories are worth sharing, it’s what we do with our faith that really shows off the teachings of Jesus. We can do amazing things that reveal how a life of faith can make a difference.
Here’s a movie with dialogue scenes that could be silent. Car chases filled with action instead of words. Mysterious characters who keep their motivations close to their chest to the grave or the finish line. You don’t always have to tell people what the “bigger than yourself” thing that you believe in and serve in actually is. But if you don’t put that belief into service, you’re no samurai. You’re ronin. Thankfully, you were created to be much, much more. Join the crew. Make a friend. Get the case. And serve your master.
Bonus Unexpected, Actual Epiphany:
Oh. Hey. I just wrote this whole article on a movie I’ve watched 100+ times and only now did I realize:
Ronin = Masterless Samurai
Ronin = “Sam” (urai)
Well, now I just wanna watch the whole damn movie again!
Thank You, Dear Reader!
Thank you for reading and sharing this Feature Presentation of Ronin for R-Rated Movie Club. This has been one of my favorite movies for over 20 years now and I’m glad to share my thoughts with you. I’ll post extra thoughts about it in a paid subscriber post soon. If you haven’t seen Ronin yet, give it a shot, and I hope you enjoy it and send me a note and let me know what you think. Paid subscribers can leave comments. For everyone else, get next to one of those guys; if there’s a sniper he’ll be afraid to shoot his own guy.