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Run-of-the-Mill 'Ronin'

By Michael O'Sullivan
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 gunfire, explosions, profanity, reckless driving and do-it-yourself surgery
Although laced with adrenaline and flavored with noirish seasoning, John Frankenheimer's "Ronin" is a disappointingly conventional thriller from the director of the masterful "The Manchurian Candidate" – a film whose pretensions of exoticness are ultimately thwarted by a nagging mistrust of its audience's sophistication.

Taking its name from the Japanese term for wandering samurai warriors who have been disgraced by their failure to protect their masters, the film concerns a similarly rootless band of modern international soldiers of fortune who rendezvous in a dank Paris bistro at the behest of a mysterious Irish woman named Dierdre (Natascha McElhone).

Hired to retrieve by force a silver valise of undetermined contents from a shadowy coterie of unpleasant-looking men, the group includes two Americans, quizzical logistician Sam (Robert De Niro) and driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth); laconic French triggerman Vincent (Jean Reno); former KGB agent and electronics expert Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard); and jumpy British military vet Spence (Sean Bean). It is a solid cast, and the actors all acquit themselves well.

Before we are even introduced to this rogues' gallery, though, the film opens with a tacked-on title explaining the derivation of the term "ronin." It's an overly explicit addendum that is all the more perplexing since the word is again defined (with greater depth and nuance) in a speech halfway through the film. Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale), a grizzled and philosophical collector of miniature soldiers, explains the Japanese legend as he gives sanctuary to Sam and Vincent after Sam has been wounded by bad guys. It's as if Frankenheimer – or one of the pesky producers – had last-minute misgivings about whether moviegoers could sit patiently through an hour of the story before learning the significance of the foreign-sounding label.

Such cheesiness feels strangely patronizing, especially in a movie that is rife with delicious ambiguity, a movie whose very subject matter in fact seems to be the realm of equivocation and betrayal. Several members of the jaded paramilitary quintet, each of whose allegiance and motivation is suspect, allude to the fact that they were rounded up by an unnamed (and unseen) man in a wheelchair, and it is never clear, even at the film's bitter end, exactly what the highly-sought-after piece of luggage contains.

These are not my quibbles with "Ronin," however. Indeed, what superficial murkiness it possesses is its very forte. Still, the screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz only dips its toe in the vast ocean of tough-guy metaphysics, as when it ruminates on such pretentious hooey as the "code of the battlefield" and a series of wannabe-Zenlike "rules" instilled in Sam by his one-time affiliation with the CIA.

"Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt," he tells Vincent.

(Ah so, grasshopper.)

Despite some ingenious touches, as when Sam and Dierdre pose as tourists to snap photos of their elusive quarry, much of the time "Ronin" feels like a high-brow Steven Seagal film, with massive gun battles that casually disregard civilian casualties and too many overlong car chases through the twisty streets of Paris and Nice. Frankenheimer even smashes one car into a fishmonger's stand – as if we haven't ever seen that hoary clicheğ before. And a scene of autos speeding through an underground tunnel is unnervingly reminiscent of a reenactment of Princess Di's demise.

Trite though it may be, the action is tautly edited and the film's picturesque French locales, including an ancient stone arena in Arles, go a long way toward diverting attention from its narrative implausibilities and credulous plot coincidences.

Late in the game, when Dierdre's boss Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) enters the picture and double-cross turns into triple-, quadruple- and quintuple-cross, I began to lose track of who wanted the bloody suitcase and why.

And, like Frankenheimer's mercenary gaggle of blase post-Cold Warriors, I no longer particularly cared.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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