“Ronin” reps a pleasurable throwback to the sort of gritty, low-tech international thriller that was a staple of the 1960s. Even though the characters are virtual cutouts and the story is ultimately without much meaning or resonance, the film offers enough potent action, intriguing shifting loyalties and scenic French locations to hold the interest; all the picture lacks is a world-weary, existential ennui to take its place alongside the works of Jean-Pierre Melville and any film starring Jean Gabin or Lino Ventura. MGM should reap decent returns in a relatively open field for actioners in late September, while significantly better coin lies in wait overseas.
Although set in the present and dramatically aided at times by such modern devices as cellphones and sophisticated tracking equipment, film has the feel of an earlier era, one close to that of director John Frankenheimer’s own “French Connection II.” In fact, pic is virtually defined by the stubble on the rugged actors’ faces, the yellow French cigarettes they smoke, their stubborn professionalism and a rueful recognition of the time when they were all young men.
Beginning on a shadowy Montmartre street as the scruffy Sam (Robert De Niro) arrives for an appointment at a seedy bar, plot snaps to attention as Irish ringleader Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) presides over a planning meeting for an ambush at which the ad hoc group of five men will attempt to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from some criminals.
Working strictly for the money without knowing who is hiring them or the identity of their targets, the gang consists of the usual cross-section of specialists: American expert strategist Sam, French coordinator Vincent (Jean Reno), German electronics and surveillance whiz Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Yank driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and British military vet and weapons adviser Spence (Sean Bean), although the latter is quickly booted out and, surprisingly, never reappears.
Once again, the most treacherous characters on the post-Cold War European playing field are Irish terrorists and the Russian Mafia, although ideological issues could not be more irrelevant. Throughout the fast-moving yarn, it’s only a matter of who’s the most clever and who can lay final claim to the all-important briefcase, a genuine McGuffin whose contents are unknown.
The first major set piece, a nocturnal face-off by the Seine that erupts into a huge shootout, is excitingly handled, whereupon the action shifts to the South of France; throughout, there is the sense that this would have been one groovy shoot to be a part of, based on the uniformly inviting settings. A reconnaissance mission to the Majestic Hotel in Cannes, in which Sam and Deirdre ingeniously scheme to photo-graph their prey while posing as tourists, stands out as one of the film’s best scenes, as does an exciting chase scene along twisty mountain roads and the narrow streets of Old Nice, leading to the briefcase’s eventual capture.
But the trusted Gregor betrays the gang by making off with the valise himself, setting off a new pursuit that leads to Arles, the site of a colossal gunbattle in the ancient Roman arena, through the rugged canyons of the area, and finally back to Paris for one more ambitious car chase and then a big finale at an ice show where the presence of a sniper revives echoes of Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate.”
All the characters here are solitary types, hired guns who say they are in it only for the money but undoubtedly have complicated pasts and hidden agendas. For his part, Sam is an apparent former CIA officer whose current relationship with the agency is unstated, while Vincent may have similar roots in Euro intelligence. Or maybe not. Partly out of necessity, the men are tight-lipped types not given to chewing the fat, but some economical musings on their part would have given the film what it sorely lacks, a sense of humanity and life experience behind these half-burned-out cases.
The cast certainly includes actors who could have supplied the characters with deeper feeling, had any been present in the script by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz, the latter a pseudonym for David Mamet, who came aboard for a rewrite. De Niro and Gallic star Reno are well matched, with the weight of having seen and done it all showing everywhere on their faces except in their eyes, which retain impudent, amused twinkles. De Niro will never be an action star on the level of Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford, but he carries “Ronin” exceedingly well and could have done even more with the part were the film more ambitious and three-dimensional. A major scene in which the injured Sam, looking in a mirror, instructs a man how to extract a bullet from his gut will have many viewers squirming.
Skarsgard is chillingly good as the cagiest poker player of the bunch, while McElhone is alluringly mysterious as the organizer who dispenses orders received from the occasionally glimpsed mastermind played by Jonathan Pryce.
As far as the chases are concerned, Frankenheimer goes to the well once too often; a high-speed pursuit through Paris, which includes a reckless excursion through tunnels that will immediately call to mind the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death, is overly chaotic and too full of jump cuts to create much sense of continuity or tension. Otherwise, pic is well-organized from a visual p.o.v., although the ease with which the characters sometimes manage to find their prey can be confounding.
Stunts and heavy-duty action, which play a major role in the film’s commercial appeal, are expertly pulled off. Tony Gibbs’ editing is sharp, while Robert Fraisse’s rugged lensing contributes significantly to the production’s strongly masculine appeal. Title refers to the 47 ronin of Japanese legend, samurai who became solitary agents wandering the land after their leader was killed. But a written pre-credits explanation of this reference looks tacky and seems unnecessary given the verbal telling of the ronin tale later on.