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'Ronin's' Chases Are Thrilling,
But Its Plot Engine Stalls

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 1998

  Movie Critic

Robert De Niro is one in a gang of mercenaries in "Ronin." (United Artists)

John Frankenheimer
Robert De Niro;
Natascha McElhone;
Jonathan Pryce;
Stellan Skarsgard;
Jean Reno;
Katarina Witt;
Sean Bean
Running Time:
2 hours
For violence and language
"Ronin" is a petrol-guzzling, tire-squealing, pedestrian-squishing car chase extravaganza. And it's a superbly mounted steeplechase, too.

Unfortunately, "Ronin" was meant to be a suspenseful tale of international intrigue, not France's answer to "Cannonball Run." Even when an actor of Robert De Niro's caliber takes the wheel, there's more pedal than mettle to this often baffling and uninvolving thriller.

The story begins in Paris, where an Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) hires Sam (De Niro) and four other mercenaries to recover a large metal suitcase from a party she can't or won't identify.

Deirdre also refuses to reveal the suitcase's contents, to give away its present location or to name the party or person she represents. This leaves everybody, the audience included, clueless. Given Deirdre's lilt, the cryptic scheme surely has something to do with the IRA, hardly a group that one rallies around with ease. But the Russian mafia, another fine organization, demonstrates an active interest in retrieving the bag. The audience's main interest, however, will lie in the thrill of the chase on some of Southern France's most scenic landscapes and narrow streets.

Though the characters include a former KGB agent (Stellan Skarsgard) with computer expertise, the film is resolutely low-tech. The spectacular chase scenes are done the old-fashioned way – by stuntmen – and recall veteran director John Frankenheimer's road work in "French Connection II" and "Grand Prix."

Written by J.D. Zeik and rewritten by Richard Weisz (a pseudonym for David Mamet), the script has a handful of clever moments and some muscular Mamety banter between De Niro's savvy Sam and Jean Reno's former French agent. Both actors find the characters behind the cardboard, working with little more than nonsensical quips and beard stubble.

Honorable men who once stood against the Evil Empire, neither likes the idea of selling out to the highest bidder. But as a couple of spies who came in from the Cold War, they have yet to forge a new identity. Like the ronin of feudal Japan, they are masterless samurai. Unlike the ronin, the heroes of a Japanese legend, these guys are still searching for a story.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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