Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thrill of the chase

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

I write movie columns my own way, no questions asked. Got it down real tight. I emerge from the mist, plan the job, see the movie, write the piece, deliver it, return into the mist. There’s a few out there like me, roaming the land. Those who need us know where to find us.

Den of critics

I get tipped off about a job in the East End. A guy – calls himself “Smith” – needs 20,000 words on John Waters’ Pecker. It’s a three-man job – a hundred bucks a head. We meet in an abandoned warehouse in Scarborough. Smith lays out the plan. The burly guy with a French accent does the plot summary. The tattooed kid from the Prairies handles the snippy comments about the actors (I take one look at this kid and know he’ll let us down – he talks the talk but hasn’t served his time. I throw out a line about Pink Flamingos and the schmuck comes back with some crap about seagulls). I’m the “artistic overview” man. I sit back, let Smith say his piece, draw his diagrams (it’s his money). “It won’t work,” I tell him then. “We need a fourth man. An editor.”

“There’s no editor. You three are the team.”

“What are the 20,000 words for?”

“You don’t need to know.”

“Are they for kids, for novices, for enthusiasts?”

“You’ll get that information later.”

“If we’re not doing the job right, my price goes up. A hundred now, a hundred on delivery.” He stares, sees where I’m coming from, retreats into the shadows and places a call, presumably to the real money men. The French guy offers me a cigarette, which I accept. I feel pretty good about him. He looks and listens, but keeps his mouth shut; he knows the rules, he’s one of us. Meanwhile the kid starts bragging about his cousin who works for Eye magazine. I just soak it up. I’ll take care of him later.

Smith returns, agrees to my terms. The screening’s in two days, maybe three. Then we have a day to carry out the job. It’s going to take killer planning. I check out the equipment. The computer’s OK, although the “F” key sticks. Smith commits to a new keyboard. The beverages suck. No one writes on Mountain Dew. The chair hurts my ass. He promises it’ll be replaced.

The documentarians!

The next night. We’ve set up a deal with a research gang from North York to buy a stash of John Waters clippings. We pull up in the designated alley, wait for the flash of their headlights. We emerge from our car, two guys emerge from theirs, we meet in the middle. “We’ve got the money,” says Frenchie, and when they ask to see it, he holds up the crisp twenty dollar bill (and that’s U.S.) in the moonlight. “Where’s the stuff?”

They tell us it’s in the trunk. Frenchie and the kid follow them to the car. Suspicious, I hang back. I scan the night like the cat. I notice they’re parked right under a streetlight. I see a rustling in the shadows; a glimmer off a lens. I instantly figure it out. “They’re not researchers,” I yell. “They’re documentarians. They’re putting us in their goddamn video.” My partners turn to steel, tackling the others as I go for the secret shooter. I overpower him easily, smash his camera. They’re no match for us. We get away with the Waters clippings and some Star Trek videotapes we find in the back seat, and we keep the twenty.

Well, more on that some other time. Now, for a complete change of pace, to John Frankenheimer’s new thriller Ronin.

French twists

Ronin is a grand, somewhat old-fashioned concoction, in which an international band of mercenaries come together in Paris to pull off the theft of an extremely important and closely-guarded suitcase. The movie has a great pace, beautiful French settings, some of the best car chases in memory, lots of neat little plot touches and Robert De Niro – not in one of his lazy cameos as the villain, but as the smartest and most resourceful of the group.

And the movie’s kind of cool. De Niro and Jean Reno (as the second smartest and most resourceful of the group) always do it just right. They’re not demonstrative or ironic quipsters in the contemporary style – maybe just a throwaway remark to break things up – but they get things done. There’s an impressive imagination in the details here. During a struggle, De Niro gains the upper hand by strategically spilling a cup of hot coffee he’d left in a particular spot a few moments earlier, apparently having foreseen exactly when and how he’d need it. Casing out their adversaries in a hotel lobby, he effortlessly orchestrates a false alarm to see how they react in an attack situation, while setting up a tourist to take pictures of the whole thing. He has a slight weakness for a beautiful woman, but…well, that’s allowed as long as you don’t go overboard. And he doesn’t.

On balance, Ronin should displace Out of Sight as the consensus choice for the year’s best thriller so far. The latter was a little too self-conscious in its effects for my taste: I liked the individual pieces well enough, but it didn’t take off for me. The actors seemed somewhat distanced from the material, all doing their own charismatic pirouettes, all determined to get good reviews, whereas Ronin looks as if everyone turned up on the set, nodded taciturnly to each other (perhaps through a cloud of cigarette smoke) and went to work. The style is beautifully fluid, dazzling in its clarity and simplicity, right on the nail. The only way to do the job.

I mean, after the young punk proved me right and double-crossed us, you don’t think we struck a pose and cried into our soup do you? A man I know from the old days at the agency got us a fix on the kid’s cell phone. We tracked him down to a room in Guelph (those John Waters cultists try to avoid the bid cities). Frenchie and I pulled up outside, and waited. And then, when he finally came out to buy Entertainment Weekly, we pounced!

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