"Ronin" could be looked at as a throwback to the kind of gritty, low-tech action thrillers of international intrigue that studios with good European connections made a staple of the 1960s.
Actually, it is the movie they all TRIED to make.
In many ways, "Ronin" is a lot like director John Frankenheimer's own "French Connection II," but it is better - much better. In fact, it even includes a car chase that surpasses the classics in "The French Connection" and
The title refers to master-less, disgraced, Japanese Samurai who hire out their services. The "ronin" in this story are five ex-Cold warriors who now find themselves truly out in the cold with no one seeming to need their services.
They are recruited by a mysterious Irish beauty named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone of "The Truman Show") for a mercenary mission. They are to steal an aluminum briefcase without asking what is inside, or whom they are stealing it from.
Robert De Niro leads a stellar international cast as an ultra-professional American covert operative who claims he just "needs the job." His partners include Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno of "The Professional"), an ex-KGB technology expert named Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard of "Good Will Hunting") and another American, Larry (Skipp Sudduth of "54"), the team's driver.
Rounding out the cast are the last two Bond villains, Sean Bean ("GoldenEye") and Jonathan Pryce ("Tomorrow Never Dies") and one of less recent vintage, Michael Lonsdale ("Moonraker").
The story becomes a post-Cold War version of "The Professionals," or "The Wild Bunch," as loyalties shift, and there is only honor among some of the thieves.
It would be neither possible, or desirable to summarize the plot and its twists in this space, but the script by David Mamet from a story suggested by J.D. Zeik (Mamet goes by the pseudonym of Richard Weisz, here in protest over having to share screenwriting credit with Zeik) is both ingenious in its plotting and pungent in the talking.
Unlike most movies of this sort, it is complex without being unfathomable and illogical. A huge twist at the end not only plays fair, it helps enlighten earlier events you might have logically objected to. Even rarer is the fact that the twist is one of character and bears on the moral weight of the story, rather than being merely a brain-teaser.
Each of the players is an enigma, but, thanks to good acting and even better writing, they are still distinct characters - a writing tightrope that is very hard to walk. It should also be mentioned that the language is very mild for the genre, and the R rating is barely deserved.
All of the performances are first-rate, but De Niro is simply superb as the cool-under-fire Sam. Known more for quirky, fiery roles with characters who are just this side of exploding, De Niro here is so in control and professional that we buy his being able to direct (in the movie's only really gory scene) abdominal surgery on himself.
Director John Frankenheimer, one of the best directors from the late 1950s and early 1960s, makes a triumphant return here. He directed what many consider the ultimate Cold War thriller in "The Manchurian Candidate"; now, he has a nominee for Best Post-Cold War Thriller.
I have to admit to being someone who thought there was nothing left to be done with car chases in movies, and the thought of going to a movie that features four of them left me cold. I was wrong.
Besides the one mentioned above - a harrowing wrong-way chase through Parisian tunnels that will be considered one of the best of all time - there is another major car chase during the initial heist that deserves mention with other classics, and two others that would be the highlight of most movies.
Frankenheimer's visual style is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock at times, and true to the Master, the mystery briefcase is a classic McGuffin. "Ronin" is a nonstop adrenaline rush of an action picture, but one that is satisfying to the brain as well.