Ronin (1998)

D: John Frankenheimer
S: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone

Terse, practically non verbal action thriller from John Frankenheimer (co-written by David Mamet using a psudeonym) which captures something of the feel of the 1970s versions of the same thing, only without the sense of distance and despair which made them what they were. This is probably just as well, and the film is quite contemporary and generally effective until its sudden and laughable upping of the stakes in the final minutes with a pointless twist and a silly denouement.

Mysterious Irish accented Natascha McElhone hires a group of professional urban mercenaries to obtain a suitcase from heavily armed opposition in the South of France including grumpy Robert De Niro, experienced Jean Reno, edgy Sean Bean and techno-boffin Stellan Skarsgard. After some preliminaries, the ambush is carried out, only to result in a series of double-crosses which leave De Niro and Reno on their own and out for revenge.

Framed by the symbolism of the Ronin, Feudal Japanese warriors without a lord (The Day of the Jackal star Michel Lonsdale explains what they are on screen at one point), the film posits that in the post cold-war world, espionage has become a dishonourable occupation for lost and leaderless men in search of redemption. The film toys with the idea of restoring honour through professionalism, but is canny enough to suggest that there are those who would take advantage of such naivete.

It is mostly composed of lengthy and well-executed chase scenes punctuated by small and heavy arms fire and a variety of explosions and car crashes. This gives full reign for the camera to take in some sights and sounds of the French Riviera, and the locations do add a certain character which the film might lack if set in more mundane U.S. surroundings. De Niro is quite good in a low-key performance which matches the tone of the script (until the ending). He is well matched with Reno in support, turning in one of his most sympathetic performances in a mainstream film for some time. The rest of the stellar cast are also on form (though Jonathan Pryce's Irish accent, like McIlhone's, is slightly suspect), and an air of professionalism abounds both on screen and off. This is clearly a movie which has been assembled with care and dedication, and it is, for the most part, worthwhile.

It does lack a certain amount of depth, but this is the price paid for its pared-down narrative which emphasises deeds rather than words as the measure of its characters. It is a little thin even so however, and it runs a bit too long to sustain its edge throughout.

It has been a long time since John Frankenheimer was an 'A' list director, but this film proves that he is still capable of turning out solid entertainments. It's a long way from The Manchurian Candidate, but it is an interesting aside in the era of the noisy blockbuster (though there has been a small movement in this direction visible in films like Heat and The Jackal). Worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.