Ronin tries to be a thinking man’s thriller. It doesn’t succeed in that endeavor, but it approaches the action with such vigor and confidence that it ends up being an excellent flick.
Sam (Robert De Niro), an American freelance mercenary, meets his contact in a French café. He has been hired by an Irish agent (Natascha McElhone) to acquire a certain briefcase. Joining Sam are Vincent (Jean Reno), the French acquirer; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), the possibly-German agent with catlike reflexes; and Spence (Sean Bean), the overeager young Englishman.
The contents of the briefcase are secret, even to the audience. This was one of Frankenheimer’s devices to increase the depth of the film. The idea is that without knowing what they are fighting for, these mercenaries must carefully examine their motives and loyalties. But when Sam is told he can’t know the contents, he ups his price and ends the conversation. So much for the thought-provoking device. Actually, it doesn’t detract from the film at all, it just doesn’t have the importance that Frankenheimer had obviously hoped for.
Before they begin their mission, the crew stocks up on weapons and technology. The scene of the weapons buy introduces us to the movie’s intricately planned, paranoid action scenes. First Sam gets a funny feeling that something isn’t right. Then Spence notices that only some of the shipment has been delivered. The dealers try to lure the mercenaries into a trap, giving them their first taste of danger on a mission destined to be filled with it.
If I were to see the movie again, I might appreciate the way this scene makes the characters question their loyalty to an unknown cause. But because the tension and action were so deftly handled, I was too engrossed to be thinking about the big picture. Ironically, that also contributes to why I say Frankenheimer didn’t fully succeed in what he intended.
The mysterious case is now in Italy, and our anti-heroes plan their attack. The level of detail in their plan is fascinating. The 30 minutes or so that goes into setting up the big grab is as cunning as the best caper, heist, or spy movie. The plan culminates in an outstanding action sequence full of amazing stunts and adrenaline-pumping car chases.
Admittedly, the chase scene has a few hackneyed moments — the Construction-on-the-Roadway, the Fish Cart, and that timeless classic, the Vegetable Stand With Stacked Boxes. Seems like it shouldn’t be so difficult to think up some new obstacles, but maybe the filmmakers were paying homage to the great cinematic tradition that is the car chase.
Regardless, Frankenheimer can be forgiven some clichés, because he avoided the use of digital effects in the car chase scenes. It’s an expensive decision, but the results are worth it. When a stunt is real, it is a feat worthy of the medium — an amazing act of ingenuity and bravery immortalized on film. When a stunt is computer-generated, (or faked by sound effects and deceptive editing) the gut-level excitement and tension just isn’t there. In Ronin, it’s there, thanks to some of the best car chases on film.
Needless to say, Sam and company do not retrieve the case (the movie’s only half over). The second half of the movie has them tracking the case as before, but this half lacks the cleverness and intricate planning introduced earlier. There is more action and as much tension, but it doesn’t have the finesse of the first hour, and its absence is felt.
The second half of the film reintroduces the question of loyalty and explains the film’s title. The Ronin, we are told, were a group of samurai whose master was betrayed and killed. They banded together, lordless, to exact their revenge. When the Ronin executed the traitor, they still didn’t have a master and they no longer had a crusade, so they committed ritual suicide. “They chose honor, they chose myth,” says Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale, who is very good in this marginal role). “They chose wrong,” retorts Sam, reinforcing the film’s easy answer to the its own questions about loyalty.
Like the device of the mystery case, this scene is an attempt to add a level of depth to the film. But like the device of the mystery case, it doesn’t succeed.
Even without Sam’s curt response, the scene doesn’t add much, because the movie goes out of its way to introduce Jean-Pierre. It is a little too convenient that Vincent knows this particular man in this particular town, right when they need a place to hole up. Instead of this keystone metaphor arising from the action, it feels as though it has been carefully placed on top of the action.
After they leave Jean-Pierre, the mercenaries head back to France, hot on the trail of the prized case. One final breathtaking car chase (the one that will be remembered) keeps the film’s pace brisk, right up to the obligatory twist ending.
The ultimate ending, the one that explains the significance of the mission, seems like one final contrivance, one last attempt by Frankenheimer to make this action movie appear smarter than it really is. Nevertheless, the addition of this (and the other) devices never really hurt the movie. That’s because as a pure action-thriller, Ronin is far above average.