The Critics: Film Studies

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Hurricane Mitch has set Honduras back 50 years, it is said. But that stubborn mole is still there on the right side of Robert De Niro's face. How many times, in Hollywood, he must have refused to have it removed. Because he wanted to stand up for plainness. That was his thing. Yet now his new film, Ronin, opens in Britain, adding further jeopardy to the notion that he is or may have been one of our greatest actors.

Do these things connect? Is it possible that reading or writing Sunday papers coaches a kind of idiocy - that our "Culture" is a device for looking away from unfair Nature, or the insidious links between privilege and its opposite? Is De Niro now "only" a movie star - or can he be on the same page and in the same thought that includes Mitch? In the thrashed land of Honduras, there must still be hombres who can do "Are you talking to me?" or "This is this!" His greatest moments - his refusal to sentimentalise bleak truths - inspired them.

Once upon a time, like Chaplin or Dean, De Niro reached out to people who lived in danger or hardship. Go back to 1980, say, and De Niro meant Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, the second part of The Godfather, and The Deer Hunter. Six films. James Dean made only three. So six should be enough. And that six included the finesse of Sicilian dignity and vengeance in the young Vito Corleone; the desperate maleness of the hysterical realist in The Deer Hunter; the famous inflation as well as the paranoid hardness of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull; the wild boy in Mean Streets; the mythic confusion - saint and avenging angel - in Taxi Driver. Plus maybe the best performance: the chronic, aggressive talker who is actually trapped in ego and loneliness in New York, New York. We can know that De Niro, and look at those few years as a proof of cinema.

I don't know De Niro. Those who have met him say he's unknowable, and a helpless interviewee. Some have glimpsed a dark, bitter soul, as well as someone who could not build on those early years. Not that the system has been much help. Remember that the field of American acting is still overshadowed by Marlon Brando: as great as De Niro, greater perhaps in that something gentler, more poetic and feminine, was always within his reach. But Brando has thrown down a curse on acting for nearly 30 years now. He has turned his back on us and his own nature, and claimed that the culture does not allow great work.

Take Ronin, Brando might say, a film in which De Niro sinks to the level of Bruce Willis - without that airy cocksure attitude that lets Willis command twice as much money per picture. Casino, Cape Fear and GoodFellas, for me, are tragic commentary on the De Niro-Scorsese bond - repetitious and imprisoned in the jargon and gesture of actors trying to be tough guys. Beyond those, De Niro has done so much that is minor or unnecessary: Falling in Love, The Mission, Angel Heart, The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Jacknife, We're No Angels, Stanley & Iris, Awakenings, Guilty by Suspicion, Backdraft, Night and the City, Mad Dog and Glory, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Sleepers, Great Expectations.

He's never bad, seldom dull. He's earning his several million every time, and used the money to get into the restaurant business, where he likes to act like his guy in Casino - a cheery, chilly greeter, a famous face in the establishment. But the energy and daring in the actor seem to have turned morose and numb.

Then something like Heat happens, the Michael Mann film of 1995, in which De Niro leads a band of expert thieves, and Al Pacino is the top cop in pursuit of them. Michael Mann is very good. Heat is full of wondrous scenes, and it gets close to an epic sense that cops and robbers are profoundly alike. But Pacino plays it for flashy nonsense: he overacts, he drawls, roars and lisps, he behaves as if he thinks he is a great actor, duty-bound to show off.

With Heat, De Niro, I suspect, sniffed a real chance and went to work. He lost weight. He fixed on the solitude, the self-sufficiency, and the terrible fatalism of his character. And he accepted that just before the major action scene, Pacino should stop him on the freeway and say, "How about I buy you a cup of coffee?" He agreed that his loner would accept the offer - because there was pressure for one big scene in which the two stars meet and talk.

Of course, that scene was a cop-out, and De Niro does it with grudging disapproval, all too aware that hardened professionals wouldn't think of being so stagey. Pacino does it all as if he were playing tennis sitting down. De Niro listens, sighs, thinks, gives off his razor-blade grin once or twice, and spanks Pacino's bottom for him. As if to say, look, we were family once, not just real actors, but Corleones. It's a great scene, and it's De Niro's, as if he was the last hard man left. That's why I'd guess that no one is more pained by the gun-play, the car chases and the empty heart of Ronin than the implacable, unyielding, but horribly trapped Robert De Niro.