1998’s “Ronin”, a terrific actioner about ex-spies earning a living as mercenaries in the post-Cold War era, is one of the most overlooked film of that year. Besides being the last great film under the care of the late veteran director John Frankenheimer (who passed away in 2002), “Ronin” showcased Robert De Niro as a gritty ex-spy who relies as much on his brains as he does on his brawn and gun.
De Niro plays a former CIA alpha male who essentially takes over leadership position of a small band of mercenaries brought together by Irish lass Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). Their mission is to steal a suitcase of unknown content and origin from some unsavory “businessmen”. The location is the alleyways, streets, and ancient city blocks of France. The film doesn’t even hit its stride until the 50-minute mark, when the movie’s real premise comes to light. But throughout the movie, the notorious suitcase is kept under wraps — it is the Maguffin, and as such we never know what’s in it, who it belongs to, or just why everyone in the world seems to want it so much they’ll kill everyone and anyone to get it.
The screenplay for “Ronin” is by J.D. Zeik, who last contributed to the Michelle Yeoh disappointment “The Touch”, with dialogue polishes by the master of dialogue himself, David Mamet (“The Heist”). (You’ll notice that Mamet used a pen name for the work, which isn’t a surprise since guys like Mamet, who cut his teeth on theater and plays, considers hiring himself out to big budget movies like “Ronin” a means to an end — a means to pay his bills and make his films.) It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to credit much of De Niro’s witty one-liners (of which there are many) to Mamet, who has made a second (and secret, at least to the general public) career of doing nothing but dialogue work on other people’s movies. (The other masters of dialogue are John Sayles and Robert Towne.)
“Ronin” features a number of gritty and realistic gunbattles as well as one of the most exciting car chases ever put to film. The movie’s big budget is put to full use, and as a result the many car chases and gunplay are spectacular and nearly puts to waste whole blocks of different, vibrant French cities. At just over 2 hours, the film has enough twists and turns and double-crosses to fill out a dozen films of its kind. As one of the better spy films to be made post-Cold War era, “Ronin” starts slow and smart, and finishes off in full throttle. The second half could be described as all business at the wrong end of a gun barrel.
At the heart of “Ronin” are the mercenaries brought together by Natascha McElhone (“Solaris”), who is working for some unnamed and unseen parties for unstated reasons. Besides the ex-CIA Sam, there’s Jean Reno (“Leon”) as Vincent, the French “tour guide” of the group; the braggart but nervous ex-British SAS Spence (Sean Bean, “Bravo Two Zero”); the East European computer man Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard, “The Glass House”); and American wheelman Larry (Skipp Sudduth). Using the briefcase as the Maguffin, the film eventually weaves and winds its way to involving Deirdre’s boss, Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), a IRA terrorist wanted by everyone for his murderous deeds.
Just what exactly is inside that bloody suitcase? The answer isn’t available, simply because it’s not important. The film focuses mostly on Sam and Vincent and their friendship in the midst of the frenzy and double-crosses for possession of the suitcase. In-between, there are some welcome moments when the cold Deirdre lets down her guard and shows feelings for Sam, and vice versa. There are hints at a romance, but the relationship is kept realistic for men (and woman) in their situation.
Every time I thought I had “Ronin” figured out, I was proven wrong. The movie is constantly surprising, and its many plot twists, though sometimes unexpected, are never without reason. The movie, under Frankenheimer’s direction, is constantly hinting at unseen motivations among the different characters. The camera is always focusing in on different, seemingly insignificant things that, as it turns out, were completely justified on hindsight. My advice is to pay close attention to camera focuses and close-ups. Frankenheimer also puts the widescreen visibility of “Ronin” to great use, reminding me once again that there is a reason films are shot and shown in widescreen in the first place.
What more could be said about “Ronin”, except that it’s an exciting and clever post-Cold War spy movie. The French scenery is quite nice, especially the many aerial views that gives us glorious glimpses of the ancient architecture and history of Europe. Robert De Niro is stellar in one of his few out-of-country roles, even if his French is a little suspect. And Natascha McElhone, in one of her first American roles, gives a nice counterbalance to De Niro’s smart aleck Sam with a low and subdued performance.
1998 may have ignored “Ronin”, but maybe that’s why God invented videostores.
John Frankenheimer (director) / J.D. Zeik, David Mamet (screenplay)
CAST: Robert De Niro….Sam