Reviewed by: Brian A. Gross
I went into “Ronin”, a film directed by John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Birdman of Alcatraz”), with the expectation of seeing a very good movie. The international cast headed by Robert De Niro was superb, I’m a fan of the director’s earlier work, and so the writing was the only thing that was a question. For good reason.
As the opening credits tell us, “Ronin” refers to a samurai without a lord and is the basis for this tale about a lonely band of post-Cold war arms experts being hired for a risky job. The first character introduced is Sam (Robert De Niro), a mysterious and thoughtful American who has clearly seen his share of clandestine missions. He meets up with Vincent (Jean Reno) and Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) and the obscure plans are laid out once they meet up with the other three hired guns. The objective is to rescue a metal case intact; the obstacles are the armory of well-armed men guarding it.
There is a long wait for the men in which there are intimations of IRA and Russian involvement with the men holding the case and much speculation at what the case is holding inside. When the hit finally happens they take out all four cars and dozens of bodyguards, only to be double-crossed by the group’s infogeek Gregor, (Stellan Skarsgård) who takes the sealed container and starts shopping it around to its highest bidder. Dierdre’s position of organizing the ambush and assembling the cadre make her the target of their wrath and her murky allegiance is questioned.
But why all the confusion about players in this drama? To me the abstruse nature of the mission did not add mystery, but confusion. It would have been better had the writer let the viewer in on the secret and, in the tradition of Hitchcock, allowed the suspense to play out in how it would all tie together. I also prefer to think of these kinds of men with specialties and unique talents, therefore revealing weaknesses and vulnerability. When they all meet up in the beginning there is a man who requests a specific type of vehicle and I presumed that he was the car expert and getaway driver. But I found later that they all drive as if they had training on the European circuit.
Those scenes, however, of the high-speed car chases through the narrow streets of Paris and Nice are nothing short of incredible. Much was made in pre-release about the cars racing through the tunnels of France being eerie reminders of the chase that ended the life of Princess Diana—an unremarkable observation when considering professional drivers on one side and a drunk driver on the other. Also, there are some memorable moments between De Niro and Jean Reno; the aging gunfighters sharing sober, unsentimental memories like Pike and Dutch in “The Wild Bunch”.
Sadly, Frankenheimer has become the aging filmmaker who hasn’t made a quality feature film in twenty-five years (“The Iceman Cometh”). He has shown flecks of his old style but his output of recent has been predominantly television work—often mucked up by his progressive politics. He has no future projects slated so his excellence remains in the distant past: “Seconds”—as vibrant and as experimental as when it was released; “The Manchurian Candidate”—the chilling Cold-War classic; “The Birdman of Alcatraz”—the best movie on the subject with stirring performances. Have filmmaker will travel.
There is one scene of passionate kissing between Deirdre and Sam, but that is the extent of the sexuality, and like the rest of the movie, unresolved. The violence—more comic book style than graphic—is ample but not out of the boundaries of modern action films. And, as always, there is the sprinklings of profanity indigenous to this element but nothing out of character or boldly offensive.