In Japanese legend, a ronin was a samurai whose lord was killed. Left with no one to protect and ashamed that he let his master die, a ronin wandered the countryside often as a killer for hire, or a thief. In John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, we meet a band of modern-day ronins.
In a small café in Paris we meet these ronins Sam the American (Robert De Niro) who to our knowledge is ex-CIA, or at least he says he is; Vincent (Jean Reno) from France who is the team’s “tour guide”; computer expert Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) from Russia; from England, weapons expert Spence (Sean Bean); and master driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth) from America.
Deidre (Natascha McElhone), who is under the control of a mysterious man, has brought this international team of “ronins” together. Deidre is told to get together this team in order to steal a suitcase. What’s in the suitcase? We don’t know. The suitcase is just a McGuffin - or as Alfred Hitchcock, the man who coined this term, defines as an object that we are all focused on, but it really doesn’t matter what it is.
For the rest of the movie we follow this team of ronins on their quest to get back the suitcase. We go from shootouts to car chases to shoot outs and back to car chases. If this sounds tedious to you, it is not. I’m sure this repetition would have failed under the hands of a beginner and untalented director, but under the steady hands of John Frankenheimer, it works out really well.
I lost count of shootouts but there were three spectacular chases. Some might argue that three chases in one movie is two too many. But, these car chases are technically brilliant - the logistics of putting three of them together must have been a nightmare. From the tight and fast driving in the claustrophobic and anemic streets of Paris to the weaving and avoiding oncoming traffic, these car chases are the staples for Ronin.
The shootouts get the adrenaline pumping with the zings and whizzes of bullets flying all around. There’s nothing like watching Robert De Niro wielding an M-60 and taking out faceless bad guys in a tight alleyway. The sound design for this movie is fully enveloping. For example, there is a scene where one of the ronins is being beat up in a backroom. As the camera pans to another character, we hear the punches and grunts swirl around to the right rear. I turned my head backward to see if it was an audience member grunting or if it was a sound effect. Kudos to the sound design team.
Writers J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz (pseudonym for David Mamet) put together a script that keeps us wondering who can and can’t be trusted. The plot for Ronin is not strong - a bunch of guys look for a suitcase - but it is enough for Frankenheimer to wrap his action around.
It’s hard not to compare Ronin with Mission: Impossible. Both Ronin and Mission: Impossible are about a band of spies who have lost their jobs and are out to steal something. Where Mission: Impossible failed is in the action and plot. Mission: Impossible’s plot was too tangled to enjoy and the action was thin at best. Had Mission: Impossible, like Ronin, had a strong script and director behind it, it would have turned out to be a much better movie.
The actors in Ronin give stand-out performances. How could they not? These are top-notch actors. Robert De Niro gives an outstanding performance as Sam. His portrayal of Sam is as an overly cautious man who is willing to take calculated risks. In one scene, De Niro gives the perfect bite to a line. After talking another ronin into taking a bullet out of himself, De Niro calmly says, “You think you can stitch me up on your own? If you don’t mind, I’m going to pass out.”
Jean Reno is a great actor who is sometimes squandered - look at how his talents are wasted in Mission: Impossible and Godzilla. When given the chance to perform, Reno shines. His character of Vincent is a tough Frenchman who is loyal to the people that he can trust. Reno gives an outstanding performance as Vincent.
Bean, Skarsgard, and McElhone all give good performances. Skarsgard, who was the caring teacher in Good Will Hunting, is vicious in Ronin. It was funny to see German ice skater Katerina Witt in Ronin as a Russian ice skater.
I haven’t seen any of John Frankenheimer’s (The Manchurian Candidate) films other than Ronin. After seeing Ronin, I will be renting Frankenheimer’s older works to see more of his style. Frankenheimer definitely has a style, gritty and realistic. He also has a mastery of putting together edge-of-your-seat moments. Something to note Frankenheimer recently won an Emmy for directing the cable TV movie George Wallace.
Worth mentioning is Elia Cmiral’s score for Ronin that builds a lot of tension during the film.
Ronin is a white-knuckle thriller. It kept me at the edge of my seat for the full running time and had me flinching during the action sequences. The plot for Ronin is much like the suitcase, it’s something that we care about, but don’t know anything about. It would have been nice to have a little more plot - but, with a talented director behind the script we forget about the paper-thin plot. Don’t Miss Ronin. Ronin makes some of the action movies of the summer look like dramas.
Edited by Cher Johnson.