I don't walk into a situation I don't know how to walk out of.
With its exotic European locales, double-crosses, spectacular action sequences, and brooding protagonists, "Ronin" has the look and feel of one of those old-fashioned espionage/caper films of yesteryear. Though this action thriller benefits from the scenery-chewing presence of Robert De Niro ("Wag the Dog", "Great Expectations"), the film falls short with a plot-driven tale that eschews emotional resonance and character development in favor of gun battles and car chases. It's good... just not great.
On a dark night in Paris, six shadowy characters converge on a seedy-looking bar, all modern-day equivalents to feudal-Japan's 'ronin', or samurai without masters. Disowned by their masters in the intelligence community, they wander the world in search of jobs that will make use of their deadly talents. Sam (De Niro) is an ex-CIA operative in search of some extra cash. Vincent (Jean Reno, last seen in "Godzilla") is Frenchman who can get his hands on equipment. Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard of "Good Will Hunting") is a German electronic surveillance whiz. Spence (Sean Bean of "Goldeneye") is a British ex-military man and weapons expert. Larry (Skip Sudduth of "54") is an American brought on as a driver. Finally, there is Deirdre (Natascha McElhone of "The Truman Show"), the no-nonsense lady of ice who hired them.
You ever kill anyone?
No, but I did hurt somebody's feelings once.
Their job is to retrieve a mysterious metal briefcase, contents unknown, from the Russian mafia, which is about to be sold to Russian buyers. It is Deirdre's intention to ambush the criminals before the exchange can be made, and the five hired guns get to work planning the specifics of the job. However, what they are unaware of is that another man, Seamus (Johnathan Pryce of "Tomorrow Never Dies"), is lurking in the background, commanding Deirdre's every move. Despite the careful planning and meticulous execution of the operation, a number of serious setbacks and bloody betrayals occur, leading to a relentless and action-filled pursuit across France.
There's no more help, there's no more men. Are you afraid?
What, you think I'm reluctant because I'm happy?
There's a lot to like in this action-thriller. The detailed deconstruction of the caper, and the complications that result when the plan goes awry, offer plenty of material to maintain audience interest. Director John Frankenheimer, who helmed such classic thrillers as "French Connection II" and "The Manchurian Candidate", excels in creating an atmosphere of pervasive paranoia and duplicity, and also adeptly captures the film's numerous action sequences, including the clip-burning ambush and a lengthy car chase through the crowded streets of Paris. The actors give superb performances despite the scant material they are given to work with, especially De Niro as a suspicious skeptic, Reno as the cool and aloof sidekick, and McElhone, who is alluring as the tight-lipped and seemingly cold-hearted ringleader.
Of course, this troupe of actors could have truly excelled if they had more material to work with. The plot-driven script of "Ronin" does not give any time for the characters to develop-- instead they scurry between double-crosses, gun battles, and car chases. What is really glaring in this relatively emotionless script is that the characters do not seem to reflect or care about the consequences of their actions. In their wanton chase across French countryside for the mysterious briefcase, their reckless abandon lays waste to Paris and Nice, and results in the deaths of numerous innocent bystanders. Another dimension to these characters could have been added had they actually been confronted with the consequences of their actions, or balanced the importance of securing the briefcase with the costs of doing so. But alas, it never happens, relegating them to nothing more than your archetypal stock espionage/heist movie characters.
Further complicating the already serpentine plot is the fact that much of the dialogue is spoken with thick accents, making quite a bit of it incomprehensible. Which is a shame, since celebrated screenwriter David Mamet ("The Edge"), who is a master at writing insightful dialogue, was brought on board to punch up the script (he appears on the credits under the pseudonym 'Richard Weisz'. Fortunately, there are two trademark Mamet-isms that do show up in "Ronin": the numerous sharp and satirical lines uttered throughout the film, and the use of 'McGuffin'. The 'McGuffin', coined by Alfred Hitchcock, is a plot device that drives the motivations of the characters. It is not important what the McGuffin is, or how it works-- what is important is that the characters feel that it is important. In David Mamet's directorial debut "The Spanish Prisoner", the McGuffin is a mathematical model that would allow a company to profit from the stock market. In "Ronin", the McGuffin is the briefcase-- nobody knows what's inside, but they do know that it is important enough to kill for it.
In spite of the shortcomings of its script, "Ronin" is still a thrilling roller-coaster ride full of pyrotechnics and intrigue. Had it not been for the superb cast, scenic vistas, and superb action direction of Frankenheimer, this probably would have been just another bone-headed action movie.