Friday September 25, 1998
They're tense and intense, been there and been around, world-weary and drop-dead professional. They're five hard men with implacable faces and murky pasts brought together to do a dirty job they don't even pretend to understand. If their story sounds familiar, that turns out to be a very good thing.
"Ronin," directed by John Frankenheimer from a script that David Mamet had a noticeable hand in, is an old-fashioned thriller brought efficiently up to date. It's a welcome throwback to the days when the world didn't have to end or tanker trucks explode to get an action audience's attention, and it calls out for traditional adjectives like crisp and gripping that have almost fallen out of fashion in the face of today's bloated fare.
It couldn't be more fitting that a picture this traditional was directed by the 68-year-old Frankenheimer, whose credits go back to 1954 and live television and include features like "Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May."
Working in a lean, laconic style he acknowledges was influenced by French director Jean-Pierre Melville ("Le Samourai"), Frankenheimer brings his experience to bear on a scenario that has been smartly pared down in order to ratchet up the tension, especially in the film's series of heart-stopping car chases.
It was newcomer J.D. Zeik, one of the film's pair of writers, who came up with the idea of doing a contemporary take on the traditional Japanese notion of ronin, masterless samurai who are forced into the humiliating position of working for hire for anyone with the means to pay them.
In modern Paris, five of these freelance operatives, unknown to each other, congregate in a small Montmartre bistro and a nearby warehouse. They include Slavic electronics whiz Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), British weapons specialist Spence (Sean Bean), American wheelman Larry (Skipp Sudduth), and French jack-of-all-trades Vincent (Jean Reno).
Though he's self-effacing enough to say his worst crime is "I hurt someone's feelings once," it's the fifth man, an American named Sam who emerges as the group's center. Tautly played by Robert De Niro, an actor who's a natural at being both forceful and impassive, Sam probably doesn't remember his last human emotion and nothing short of a tactical nuclear weapon landing in his lap would make him blink.
The contact person/employer for this group is an Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), who fills the lads in on their assignment. They're to lift a silver metal briefcase, heavily guarded by parties unknown in the scenic South of France. It's coveted by the Russians, among other parties, and worth paying each of these men $5,000 a week plus a $20,000 bonus when the deed is done.
If that sounds kind of sketchy, it's going to have to stay that way, because that box and its mysterious contents are a classic McGuffin, a plot device more important for getting "Ronin's" action juices flowing than for what's actually inside.
Making "Ronin" even harder to figure out is the film's self-consciously clipped and elliptical dialogue, lines like "Whenever there is any doubt there is no doubt." The other writing credit reads Richard Weisz, but figuring out that it's a pseudonym for David Mamet (who apparently no longer believes in using his name on shared writing credits) wouldn't have been difficult even if the situation hadn't become public knowledge.
While Mamet's words are occasionally an irritant in his own, more leisurely works, they make a good fit with this film's fast-paced, more cinematic style. Actually, lots of things about "Ronin," including its implausible coincidences, crosses and double-crosses and unnamed super-secret organizations, would cross the line into silliness except that Frankenheimer's fast-moving ability to tighten scenes to their maximum tolerance (aided by Elia Cmiral's ominous, percussive score) leaves us little time to ponder anything.
"Ronin" is especially satisfying in its several impressive car chases, which blast through the old section of Nice and the winding roads of the Co^te d'Azur as well as central Paris. Frankenheimer was determined to film these realistically, without digital compositing, and working with stunt coordinator Joe Dunne and car stunt supervisor Jean-Claude Lagniez, he's come up with startling sequences that remind us how exciting the basics of filmmaking can be when skillful people care enough to do them right.
Ronin, 1998. R, for strong violence and some language. An FGM Entertainment production, released by United Artists Pictures. Director John Frankenheimer. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr. Executive producer Paul Kelmenson. Screenplay J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz. Story J.D. Zeik. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse. Editor Tony Gibbs. Costumes May Routh. Music Elia Cmiral. Production design Michael Z. Hanan. Art director Gerard Viard. Set decorator Robert Le Corre. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute. Robert De Niro as Sam. Jean Reno as Vincent. Natascha McElhone as Deirdre. Stellan Skarsgard as Gregor. Sean Bean as Spence. Jonathan Pryce as Seamus.