Film: Ronin

Revisiting John Frankenheimer’s spy thriller Ronin (1998) over the weekend, I was struck by how old it looked, a jarring observation in light of my memory of it as a Brand New Thing. This time-warpy disorientation pervaded my re-watch, but it’s still a well produced, generally engaging action film with touches of spy-world intrigue.

Robert De Niro stars as Sam, an ex-CIA agent who takes a sketchy job in Paris, joining a rogue’s gallery of international operatives. This group includes Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno), British weapons expert Spence (Sean Bean), German computer genius Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), and American wheelman Larry (Skipp Sudduth). Running the show is a fiery Irishwoman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), who lays out the mission: a full-on, guns-blaring heist of a mysterious metal briefcase from an armed convoy. What ensues is a sequence of hair-raising exploits across Europe as this team of ethically questionable mercenaries relentlessly pursues its quarry, while also trying to determine who among them can be trusted.

There’s something definitely…nineties about the weird way Ronin appropriates its themes, and its title, from Japanese samurai lore. But if you can get past that, what remains is an attractive, well-crafted action flick full of nicely shot international scenery and frenetic violence. Switchbacks, double-crosses, and tradecraft are on display, but definitely take a back seat to car chases, dust-ups, and shootouts. Fuzzy plot logistics mar the flow occasionally, but the filmmaking craft is solid as Frankenheimer’s classy, striking visual sense infuses every frame. The action scenes are exciting and well filmed. The plot isn’t particularly impressive; especially unconvincing is how determined these mercenaries are to see things through even after everything goes sideways. Fortunately, the characters are winning in their iffy, underworld way, which kept me interested in their plight. De Niro is one of those actors whose performing gave way to persona at some point, but he’s both credible and likable here as a hired gun with a code. His unlikely romance with McElhone doesn’t sing, but his quiet bromance with Reno does, something to rally around while following this pack of scoundrels from place to place. Hardly a classic, this one, but it’s a highly professional outing from Frankenheimer likely to please fans of the genre.

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