Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skasgard, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale, Jan Triska.
In the 60’s, John Frankenheimer was without peer as a director of taut action films and riveting political thrillers. His more memorable films included Seven Days In May, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and The Birdman Of Alcatraz. Since the 70’s though his career seems to have stalled with a succession of grim, second rate thrillers, like French Connection II, Prophecy, 52 Pick Up, and The Fourth War, that only showed brief glimpses of his true talent. His tv career has thrived in the meantime, with a number of critically acclaimed HBO features. But now, the 68 year old returns to form with Ronin, a gutsy post cold war thriller that shows many of today’s hip and flashy MTV inspired younger directors a thing or two about making tough, stylish action films.
Historically, the ronin were disgraced samurai of feudal Japan who hired themselves out as bandits or body guards. In this action thriller, their modern day counterparts are a group of free lance ex- spies, former mercenaries and disillusioned cold war warriors, who are gathered in Paris for a mysterious mission. They are to snatch a case from a heavily guarded escort.
But once these experts in the clandestine arts have successfully stolen the case, they find themselves ensnared in a labyrinthine web of treachery and murder. Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard, from Breaking The Waves, etc) double crosses everyone and makes off with the case himself, hoping to sell it to the highest bidder. Sam (Robert De Niro), a former CIA agent, and Vincent (the wonderfully droll Jean Reno, from Mission Impossible, etc) join forces to retrieve the case and uncover the identity of their mysterious employer.
The deft and sinuous plot has been written by J D Zeik, Richard Weisz and an uncredited David Mamet. As with both Pulp Fiction and Robert Aldrich’s tough noirish thriller Kiss Me Deadly, what’s actually in the case is never revealed. The contents are immaterial; they are what Alfred Hitchcock used to refer to as a macguffin, a red herring that is irrelevant to the central plot development.
The tough characters are suitably enigmatic, and we learn little of their background or motivation. The performances from the ensemble international cast are solid, and of an unusually high calibre for the action genre. Both De Niro and Reno in particular are excellent as a pair of cynical former spies, while Natascha McElhone (from Surviving Picasso, etc) is alluring and mysterious as Dierdre, their nominal boss. Ronin also includes appearances from three former Bond villains – Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce and Michael Lonsdale – which adds to its flavour.
Ronin is a tense action thriller that delivers on its promise with brutal efficiency and energy. But the highlight of Ronin is undoubtedly its series of superbly executed car chase sequences, which eclipse most recent cinematic car chases, and a gun battle in the streets of Nice that recalls Heat. Cars race at breakneck speeds through the tunnels and crowded autobahns of Paris and the narrow, twisting streets of Nice, leaving a trail of carefully orchestrated destruction in their wake.
This adrenaline charged and testosterone fuelled film keeps the audience hooked throughout its numerous twists and turns and improbabilities. Frankenheimer directs the material at a slick, bruising pace that rarely lets up. Ronin is indeed a welcome return to form for one of Hollywood’s most influential premier action directors!