Robert De Niro stars as an American intelligence operative adrift in irrelevance since the end of the Cold War--much like a masterless samurai, a.k.a. "ronin." With his services for sale, he joins a renegade, international team of fellow covert warriors with nothing but time on their hands. Their mission, as defined by the woman who hires them (Natascha McElhone), is to get hold of a particular suitcase that is equally coveted by the Russian mafia and Irish terrorists. As the scheme gets underway, De Niro's lone wolf strikes up a rare friendship with his French counterpart (Jean Reno), gets into a more-or-less romantic frame of mind with McElhone, and asserts his experience on the planning and execution of the job--going so far as to publicly humiliate one team member (Sean Bean) who is clearly out of his league. The story is largely unremarkable--there's an obligatory twist midway through that changes the nature of the team's business--but legendary filmmaker John Frankenheimer (Seconds
, The Manchurian Candidate
) leaps at the material, bringing to it an honest tension and seasoned, breathtaking skill with precision-action direction. The centerpiece of the movie is an honest-to-God car chase that is the real thing: not the how-can-we-top-the-last-stunt cartoon nonsense of Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon
), but a pulse-quickening, kinetic dance of superb montage and timing. In a sense, Ronin
is almost Frankenheimer's self-quoting version of a John Frankenheimer film. There isn't anything here he hasn't done before, but it's sure great to see it all again. --Tom Keogh
On The DVD
The two-disc set has substantial additional features, most of which emphasize the film's extraordinary car chase sequences. In his commentary, director John Frankenheimer delights in the stunts ("Now that's the best four-wheel drift I think I've ever seen!") but also explores the difficulty of effective time transitions in a thriller. He also discusses his love of Paris, and how the city presents challenges to location filmmaking that aren't encountered in U.S. productions. The segments "The Driving of Ronin
" and "Ronin:
Filming in the Fast Lane" also focus on cars, Paris, and cars in Paris; the interview with stunt-car coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez is especially enlightening.
Robert De Niro, Natascha McElhone, and Jean Reno discuss their characters in Venice Film Festival interviews; De Niro is characteristically taciturn, McElhone articulate and lovely, and Reno charmingly expansive about his character Vincent. ("Is he tough? Yeh, he knows his guns.") McElhone also gets her own separate interview, in which she discusses her concern at being thrown into the opening scenes as a novice among old pros--a situation shared by her character in the film.
Segments with the director of photography, editor, and composer are also included, but Elia Cmiral's use of the haunting duduk theme deserves more exploration than it gets here. There is also a thrown-together photo gallery and a brief, bleak alternate ending. --Michael Smith