By Marc S. Sanders

John Frankenheimer directed the exceptional thriller Ronin, featuring Robert DeNiro and a band of baddies all hired to intercept a mysterious suitcase. The contents are never revealed, and it really doesn’t matter. It’s the pursuit that’s important. Consider this a glossier version of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Not big on exceptional dialogue but huge on top notch car chase action.

Frankenheimer works with a script co-written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (using a pseudonym), and all that’s necessary to assemble a gripping two hour story is to have the characters team up, then abandon each other and then double cross each other. How do you identify professionals like these? Well, recruit Michael Lonsdale (former Bond villain from Moonraker) to explain the meaning of the samurai known as Ronin who have become masterless; skilled swordsman with loyalty to no one any longer.

DeNiro plays “Sam” who may be former CIA. He’s one of five men hired by an Irish woman named Deirdre (Natasha McElhone) to retrieve the well-guarded package. This entails intercepting a convoy of cars riding along the French countryside. The fun in the car chase action of all this is that the characters are implied to be at least as ruthless as the subjects they’re stealing from. Therefore, Frankenheimer and his team of 300 (yes, that number is accurate) stunt drivers can offer up reckless collateral damage; cafes are crashed into, buses flip over, and motorcycles skid out of control. It’s Vice City before there was ever a Vice City video game. These guys are not stopping for little old ladies crossing the street.

Jean Reno partners up with DeNiro for a time as a Frenchman and Stellan Skaarsgard plays a German ex-KGB agent. Eventually, Jonathan Pryce comes in to play as well, representing more Irish influence. Sean Bean is here too. (Have you been paying attention? That’s three Bond villains in one movie!!!!) All good casting.

That’s about all there is to say. The plot is deliberately thin with a slight, mediocre twist, and a romance that’s nothing truly interesting.

Still, Ronin is watchable. Frankenheimer and his cinematographer, Robert Fraisse, present awesome locales of a thriving Europe from 1998. Editing is quick and sharp too. Consider Ronin a precursor to Paul Greengass’ Jason Bourne films.

If nothing else, beyond the various car chases and high stakes shootouts, DeNiro had me convinced he was clearly instructing his colleagues on how to remove a bullet from his gut.

Yes. You pretty much see everything.


By Marc S. Sanders

JRR Tolkien was one of the 20th Century’s greatest fantasy writers. The Lord Of The Rings series was a dense, sweeping epic inspired by the torn European climate during World War II and its conflict with the Axis nations, particularly Hitler and his organized Nazi Germany.

Peter Jackson found the opportunity to adapt Tolkien’s works. In 2001, The Fellowship Of The Ring amazed audiences with its epic landscape of Middle Earth, Isengard and Mordor where the fiery Mount Doom is located and the evil eye of Sauron waits for a resurgence of overthrow.

Much happens in each three hours plus Rings films. Tolkien’s story is not so much plot, but moreover a journey from one adventure to another. What’s special is that the main hero is a small, kind Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who has been tasked with carrying the dangerously powerful “One Ring To Rule Them All” back to Mount Doom and destroy it. He is aided by eight fellows, three other Hobbits and four representatives of various nations and backgrounds to protect and escort him. The most significant member is the wise wizard Gandalf The Grey played by Ian McKellen in an Oscar nominated performance. The other characters’ significance become more established in later films.

This first installment is my favorite of the series because it is the most absorbing. I believe in the all but sinister and deadly value of Tolkien and Jackson’s MacGuffin, the Ring. Jackson does well of posing the threat of danger each time Frodo dons the Ring for the sake of invisibility while the Orc army of Saruman, Sauron’s Wizard henchman played by Christopher Lee, bears down on the Fellowship. The film shows one battle after another but the suspense is heightened each time as we become more familiar with Jackson’s digital world. It’s also quite dramatic to see Frodo become consumed in fear and a kind of sickness as the possession of the Ring weighs upon him. To precisely show that transition requires a three hour film, and Elijah Wood is up to the task, always appearing quite angelic and unsure of his assignment. Wood is quite the underrated actor.

There are a multitude of character descriptions in The Fellowship Of The Ring and a number of them come into play when centered around the viewpoint of the Ring. Backstories for others are really not necessary but Jackson attempts to cram as much of Tolkien’s narrative as possible. Beyond Frodo, and maybe Gandalf, the other most interesting character here is that of Boromir played by Sean Bean, often playing a variation of a hero in his films, but quite good at not being worthy of endless accolades. Boromir is a great character to show how the temptation of the Ring can cloud and poison the mind. Bean evokes that of one who might be a weak addict, needing a quick fix of the Ring’s power. There’s a complexity to his performance. Boromir is likable but Sean Bean makes the character quite shocking as well. He’s not a villain but his internal weakness presents a conflict for Frodo and his band. Sean Bean never got enough recognition for his role here.

Peter Jackson is the real hero though. This series is a massive cinematic accomplishment. Everything feels gratefully familiar. Perhaps that is from reading Tolkien’s visually descriptive books, or maybe even the animated film from the seventies. There’s something to see in every corner of the screen. It’s a world come alive in leaves, creatures on land or in the sky, sorcery and swords, flames and even saloons of overflowing drink and large platters of food. The Shire where Frodo lives with his uncle Bilbo (an excellent and jovial Ian Holm) comes off as a happy utopian village of farming and Hobbit celebrations of laziness and relaxation from any outside elements. Jackson contrasts this beautifully against the majesty of Rivendell and the hell of Mordor. It’s a nuanced universe.

Again, for me this first installment remains the best as it is cinched up tightly in its exposition and narrative. Later films are just as grand but maybe sidestep away from themselves a little.

I never got that impression with The Fellowship Of The Ring. Everything I see belongs in the film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Over six years went by following Timothy Dalton’s last appearance as James Bond. He wasn’t likely to come back and the big question, besides if we’d ever see another film, was who would carry the Walther PPK pistol next as 007. Pierce Brosnan was not a likely choice as I recall, having missed out on the opportunity before with a flimsy Remington Steele contract commitment with NBC. Yet, one day my brother called me at work to share with me the news that Brosnan had signed on. His first film in the everlasting series was Goldeneye directed by Martin Campbell (eventual director of Casino Royale and Green Lantern). It was a welcome debut for the former odds-on favorite contender.

Bond goes up against the Russians in a post-Cold War 1990’s era, with Sean Bean as his adversary, also once known as Bond’s ally, Agent 006-Alec Trevalyen.

With Famke Jannsen as sidekick Xenia Onatopp (holding on to the sexual innuendo tradition), Alec steals a super helicopter that allows him to take possession of the Russian Goldeneye disc. Dame Judi Dench, making her first appearance as M, assigns Bond to locate the disc and find out what Alec intends to do with it. Forget about what the disc is for; you don’t uncover that until the end of the film.

Brosnan is a good physical Bond and he does the tongue in cheek well, sounding much like his Remington Steele character. Screenwriters Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Fierstein provide a wealth of signature puns for Bond to deliver. Onatopp can masterfully kill someone by squeezing a victim between her thighs. Bond’s observation: “She always liked a tight squeeze.”

The film has an outstanding but unrealistic opening scene with a motorcycle trying to catch up to a descending airplane. There’s also a fun tank/car chase in Red Square, and a great action-packed ending in Cuba where a satellite is hidden to aid Alec in his plot.

Bean’s role, like most of those on his resume, makes for a great villain – a real equal to Brosnan in physicality and wit. A great match up.

The Bond girl is also very good. Beautiful but not exuding too much sexiness. More so, actor Izabella Scorupco as Natalya, the Russian computer analyst, is an intelligent addition to the story. Alan Cumming is fun as a nerdy analyst as well. I love when he consistently boasts “I AM INVINCIBLE!!”

Goldeneye was well celebrated upon its release. James Bond was back and updated for the modern action film. The first scene of the film cemented Brosnan as the super spy with a true to life stunt where 007 bungee jumps off of a high-altitude water dam, with just enough time to take out his cable pistol. As soon as the scene graced the screen, fans sat up with attention.

This was a James Bond everyone could love.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean (who, miraculously, does NOT die in this film)
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 37%

PLOT: A bereaved woman (Foster) and her daughter are flying home from Berlin to America. At 30,000 feet, the child vanishes, and nobody will admit she was ever on the plane.

I get it. Flightplan strains at the leash of credibility. A lot. In order for the plot to work, the audience has to believe that a number of people would have to be involved in a massive conspiracy, a cacophony of coincidences that screams “CONTRIVED” to any sane moviegoer.

But, as ridiculous as it seems, the movie still works incredibly well, even upon repeat viewings. Director Robert Schwentke has not exactly distinguished himself since this film (credits include R.I.P.D., Red, and the last two Divergent movies), but Flightplan displays a surefire command of tone, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere while keeping the camera free to move around the plane along seemingly impossible paths.

This film is a classic example of what Roger Ebert called a “locked room” puzzle. A girl is missing on an airplane – admittedly a very LARGE airplane, but still. There are only so many places she can be. The plane is searched, but she’s nowhere to be found, leaving only two possibilities: she was never there to begin with, or someone’s lying. But who? And why? She thinks she recognizes an Arab passenger on the plane…was he staring in her apartment window the previous night? Is she going crazy, or has there been an actual kidnapping? That’s the central mystery, and it carries the movie for most of its brief running time.

(There’s a neat section where Foster’s character (who, coincidentally, helped design the plane they’re on), monkeys around with the plane’s electronics and gets the oxygen masks to fall, to create a diversion for herself. Tell you what, that would get MY attention.)

The final resolution is…well, let’s say it answers all the questions of what happened without addressing HOW it happened. A lot of folks found that unsatisfactory (thus the 37% on Rotten Tomatoes), but the movie is so well-made and executed that, by the time the credits rolled, I didn’t mind it so much. But, you know…that’s just me.