1998, R, 121 min. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Jonathan Pryce, Natascha Mcelhone, Stellan Skarsgärd, Skipp Sudduth, Sean Bean, Michel Lonsdale.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 2, 1998
Trying to find a first-rate Euro-caper these days is akin to trying to find romantic comedies by Abel Ferrara: They're just not there. Kudos, then, to Frankenheimer, the grand old man of cerebral action films, for giving it his best shot one more time. And although Ronin fails to live up to its admittedly high expectations, it remains head and shoulders above what little competition there is by virtue of its stellar casting, editing, and above all, Frankenheimer's fluid, explosive direction. An old hand at ratcheting up the suspense until your veins begin to pop, Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, French Connection II) pulls out all the stops here, but ultimately Ronin is snafued by a few too many plot twists and some creative scripting that even a late-addition (and pseudonymous) David Mamet couldn't solve. The film revolves around a shadowy group of Cold War relics, four men and a woman, recruited in Paris to acquire by any means necessary a large, silver briefcase from an unknown target. The details are sketchy at best: Tall, blonde Dierdre (McElhone), possibly an I.R.A. member, has gathered the best of the best; De Niro's Sam, who may or may not be ex-CIA; the impossibly ravaged Reno as Vincent, a French acquisitions specialist; Skarsgärd as Gregor, the duplicitous über-hacker; and Bean's Spence, the puke-at-the-first-sign-of-trouble Brit. Frankenheimer does wonderful things with his set-up (watching the quintet interact as they meet for the first time is a revelation -- De Niro and Reno, particularly, are at the top of their form), but the rest of the film is spent waiting for a payoff that never arrives. Ronin is a case of too much too soon, and by the time “Directed by John Frankenheimer” flashes on the screen some two hours later, you're still wondering “Is that it?” Unfortunately, it is. Still, it's a hell of a ride. No one directs car chases like Frankenheimer, and the lengthy, turbo-charged rides here are akin to living things, snaking their reptilian paths through the claustrophobic byways of a decrepit Paris and a sprawling, too-small Nice. Much of this out-of-control beauty is due to editor Tony Gibbs, who knows just when to cut and when to let the sequence play itself out. Ronin also succeeds wonderfully in terms of sound: It's a loud film, but unlike last summer's Armageddon -- which turned it all up to 11 and then went out for a six-pack -- this film knows exactly when to be loud, and exactly when to let the quiet, hissing sound of a dying Fiat engine taper into a cacophonous silence. It looks good, it sounds good, but Ronin falls just shy of the mark; it's the kind of near-miss you don't mind so much.