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I'm sure most of you know that there are two ways to sell a movie in Hollywood: actually write a screenplay (which is hard and takes a lot of time), or develop a "pitch." A "pitch" means that you walk into the offices at Paramount with the requisite amount of misplaced zeal and say something like "okay, there's a DOCTOR...but he's not really a doctor, he's also a CHIMP who went through MED SCHOOL. And he's also DEAD, and gets into all kinds of wacky misadventures! And it's called GHOST CHIMP, M.D.!!!"
You'd be stunned how many of these pitches get bought. Especially if you're an established writer, you can go into a meeting and get paid for writing things you just thought of in the parking lot. Mercifully, precious few of these harebrained ideas actually see celluloid, but the pitch remains Hollywood's verbal currency when it comes to all the Great Movie Ideas.
A more complicated pitch is for "Ronin," the new thriller starring Robert DeNiro. It goes like this: "taking their cue from the ancient Samurai who had lost their master, five 'masterless' agents roam Europe to perform acts of mercenary to the highest bidder." Joining DeNiro in this escapade is the sultry and mysterious Natasha McElhone, who works with Uber-Baddie Jonathan Pryce in the grail-like quest for a silver suitcase that, we are informed, may well change the course of modern terrorism. Also along for the ride is Jean Reno, who returns to his character in "The Professional" as a murderer with a heart of gold. When Reno portrays compassion and honesty, he's one of the best actors out there—you want him on your team regardless of your chances.
"Ronin" begins brilliantly, with the sort of oblique, noir-ish mystery that lent such power to films like "The Odessa Files" and "The Third Man." It takes a while for us to figure out who is who, and why on earth they are together. By the time we get to the first car chase (brilliantly choreographed, I might add, without the aid of any digital effects) through the one-way streets of Nice, we may well expect this movie to go into the canon as one of the all-time great thrillers.
But then someone intervened. I don't know if it was a studio exec, or an idle producer, or what, but the movie takes a turn for the lobotomized in an almost unforgivable manner. It's like someone said, "okay, gents, the folks in Minnesota won't get what's going on" and inserted dopey voice-overs, tacked-on scenes and an ending that is as predictable and unsatisfying as anything put out this summer. A vet director like John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") and DeNiro should have known better; it's an exercise in Potential Lost.
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