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Sam: Robert De Niro
Vincent: Jean Reno
Gregor: Stellan Skarsgard
Larry: Skipp Sudduth
Dapper Gent: Jan Triska
Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by J.D. Zeik and Richard
Weisz. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence and
some language).
The ronin of Japanese legend were samurai whose lords were
killed. Left with no leader to dedicate their lives to, they roamed the
countryside, free-lancers for hire. The same definition would apply to
the rough band of killers who assemble in a Paris bistro at the
beginning of John Frankenheimer's ``Ronin.''
They're an international crew. From America comes Sam (Robert
De Niro), who the others think is ex-CIA. From France, Vincent (Jean
Reno). From Russia, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), who may be
ex-KGB and is a computer expert. From England, Spence (Sean
Bean), a munitions and bomb man. And there's another American,
Larry (Skipp Sudduth), who is supposed to be a great driver but is
too much of a showboat, choosing as he does to replicate the Diana
death chase (actually, that's just the movie's in-joke, if it's a joke at all).
The movie is essentially bereft of a plot. There's an explanation at the
end, but it's arbitrary and unnecessary. ``Ronin'' is really about
characters, locations and behavior. Consider the elaborate opening
setup in which Sam, the De Niro character, reconnoiters the bistro
before going in. We assume he's going to attack those inside, but
actually he's only attending a meeting of all the men that has been
called by an IRA paymistress named Deidre (Natascha McElhone).
``Why did you go around to the back?'' she asks him. ``I never walk
into a place I don't know how to walk out of,'' says De Niro, who
spends most of the rest of the movie walking into places he doesn't
know how to walk out of.
Frankenheimer milks that opening for 10 minutes of pure cinema.
Once De Niro gets inside, the opening is revealed as just an
exercise, but in a film like this you stay in the present, and don't ask
questions (like, why hold the meeting in a public place?).
The IRA has assembled these five men to get a briefcase. We never
learn what is in the briefcase. It's the perfect McGuffin, as defined by
Hitchcock (something everyone cares about, although it doesn't
matter what it is). My guess: Inside this briefcase is the briefcase
from ``Pulp Fiction.'' The briefcase is in the possession of ``five to
eight men,'' Deidre tells them, and the ronin set out to track them to
Cannes, Nice and other attractive locations (an obligatory encounter
in an ancient Roman arena is not overlooked). Every encounter
leads to a violent bloodbath and a high-speed chase, so that in the
real world the headlines would be screaming about streets in flames
and dozens dead--but in a thriller of course, to be dead is to be forgotten.
I enjoyed the film on two levels: for its skill and its silliness. The actors
are without exception convincing in their roles, and the action makes
little sense. Consider the Stellan Skarsgard character, who is always
popping out his laptop computer and following the progress of chase
scenes with maps and what I guess are satellite photos. Why does
he do this? To affirm to himself that elsewhere something is indeed
happening, I think.
The best scene is one of the quieter ones, as De Niro's character
gives instructions on how a bullet is to be removed from his side. ``I
once removed a guy's appendix with a grapefruit spoon,'' he
explains, and, more urgently: ``Don't take it out unless you really got
it.'' The scene ends with a line that De Niro, against all odds, is able
to deliver so that it is funny and touching at the same time: ``You think
you can stitch me up on your own? If you don't mind, I'm gonna pass out.''
John Frankenheimer is known as a master of intelligent thrillers
(``The Manchurian Candidate,'' ``52 Pick-Up''), and his films almost
always have a great look: There is a quality in the visuals that's hard
to put your finger on, but that brings a presence to the locations,
making them feel like more than backdrops.
Here, with a fine cast, he does what is essentially an entertaining
exercise. The movie is not really about anything; if it were, it might
have really amounted to something, since it comes pretty close
anyway. The screenplay credits conceal the presence of hired hand
David Mamet, who reportedly wrote most of the final draft, and who
gives the dialogue a deadpan, professional sound. For a little more,
maybe he would have thrown in a plot.
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