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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Ronin

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno
Director: John Frankenheimer
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genres: Action, Suspense, Thriller

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If Akira Kurosawa, the late great Japanese director, looked down from his Kyoto-in-the-sky at "Ronin," would he be pleased? Now, "Ronin" takes place in contemporary France, not in medieval Japan, and deals with a band of post-Cold War adventurers, but John Frankenheimer's latest movie has mythic dimensions. The name "Ronin" is explained in the film's opening statement: "In feudal Japan, the warrior class of samurai were sworn to protect their liege lords with their lives. Those samurai whose liege was killed suffered great shame, and were no longer referred to as samurai. Such men were called Ronin."

The Ronin in director John Frankenheimer's new movie are contemporary warriors thrown out of their regular jobs with the ending of the Cold War. They no longer feel a loyalty toward their masters in the Eastern bloc or the IRA, the KGB or the CIA. They are alienated by the lack of familiar structure and now work only for money, except that they still glory in doing a professional job for the highest bidder. These Ronin include a munitions expert, a master driver and a skilled tactician. So then, would Kurosawa like what he sees? Probably not. His powerful action movie "The Seven Samurai" about a Sixteenth Century village which hires combatants to fend off bandits never sacrificed clarity in the interest of artistry. By contrast "Ronin" is not only convoluted: it seems to boast its confused plot as a metaphor for the bewilderment felt by these modern warriors who lack all political loyalties. Money is the name of the name, not allegiance to the old masters. The six men do not know who is funding their operation and while the woman who is paying them knows the identity of her boss, she hasn't the foggiest why her employer is so eager to take possession of a metal case. She does not know what's in this case, her band of a dirty half-dozen hasn't the foggiest idea, and when the movie ends, neither does the audience. But then, moviegoers spent fruitless months discussing what was in the briefcase sported in "Pulp Fiction." It matters not that we're kept in the dark about the contents, only that we're assured the material is valuable enough to have people kill or die to get it. What would be helpful might be some clue about the tangled scheme of double-dealing that pervades the story as first one member of the team then another and yet a third betray the squad to gain all the riches for themselves. These motivations are sacrificed so that Frankeheimer--whose "Manchurian Candidate" scored in 1962 as the year's best paranoid thriller--could simply serve up a glut of car chases and standard-issue shootouts.

The team of modern, shamed samurai include Sam (Robert De Niro), formerly a CIA operative who claims to be working because he needs the money. He is no gung-ho adventurer but rather a guy who is teased by a colleague with the query "Are you worried about saving your own skin?" "Yeah," is his honest reply, "It covers my body." His #1 buddy, Vincent (Jean Reno), is a Frenchman who may have given so much attention to learning English that he still has not found the time to shave. Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) looks so sinister that you can probably guess he will betray the lot while Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) have their special jobs to perform but are of minimal benefit to the plot. Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), however, emerges as the most engaging person in the narrative. An icy operative who gives the orders and pays the money, she appears too armored to have a romantic interest; yet when Sam pretends to kiss her to avoid notice by the passing police, she responds quite warmly.

When the steadicam equipment is not busy injecting realism into the tension-filled car chases--featuring the usual suspects of overturned vehicles, exploding metal, tumbling fruit-and- vegetable bins and fleeing tour groups--Frankenheimer plays up the dialogue which is surprisingly tame considering its source. The screenplay, credited to J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz, has actually been re-written from the ground up by David Mamet using the Weisz pseudonym. Mamet's staccato delivery is absent and only occasionally do we hear his signature exchanges, as when Sam and Vincent compare notes on the manufacture of the valuable case: "He had the case made, he had the fake case made, he had the case made," explains Sam, receiving the reply, "He didn't have time to have it made--he didn't have time to make the fake case."

Jonathan Pryce is perhaps the only really edgy character in the film and in his short role as an Irish operative with an array of facial expressions, he eats up the scenery. The others do a creditable job with what they have, and what they have is really a standard action movie given particular advantage by the stunning French scenery. Filmed primarily in Nice and Paris, "Ronin" plays up the noir magic of the City of Lights on a humid night, the rain casting its spell on the cobblestone streets. And the adventurous samurai can't help taking in some of the splendid scenery on the Riviera as they haul their Beamers top speed through tunnels, hilly passes, and graveled country roads, firing their guns as they survey the Cote d'Azur.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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