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UNITED ARTISTS (MGM)
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Director John Frankenheimer wastes little time in Ronin. From the very first moments, he pushes us directly into a mysterious and deadly espionage mission and he never lets up. This movie keeps moving relentlessly, like a shark afraid to stop swimming or die. And once the main mission goes into motion (near the movie's midway point), Frankenheimer throws the pace into overdrive, providing us with a non-stop avalanche of chases both on foot and by car, as well as an arsenal of gun play.
Early in his career, Frankenheimer was a completely different director. With movies such as The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, Frankenheimer displayed a remarkable capacity for edgy thrillers drenched with paranoia. While paranoia captured the main thrust, action itself was secondary. But now, Frankenheimer has given in to Hollywood's infatuation with cheap thrills and pyrotechnics and created a movie filled with hyperactive action scenes.
At its core, however, Ronin contains a story much in tune with Frankenheimer's '60s thrillers. Instead of giving us a muscular, gung-ho central character (e.g. Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson), Ronin gives us Robert DeNiro as Sam, a field soldier whose prime motivation is simply to survive until retirement. His vocation has left him edgy and leery. When he listens to a description of an upcoming job, his first concern is how he'll get out alive. In the typical world of action movies with indestructible heroes, Sam's concerns would generate laughs. When we first meet Sam, he's uneasy going into a meeting with the other members of a covert operative team. He hides a gun in back of the tavern and immediately checks for the back exit: "I never walk into a place I don't know how to walk out of," he says later. Sam is immediately contrasted with a younger member of the team, who ridicules Sam's concerns. But we soon find out Sam's wariness comes from experience. He knows his job. He knows his occupation requires a cautious attitude--or you'll soon be pushing up daisies.
It's DeNiro's character and his edgy performance that provide this movie with all of its best moments. As the movie's title indicates, he plays a character akin to the Japanese samurai warrior. However, the difference is significant: a "ronin" is a samurai whose liege has been killed. Now the masterless warrior must wander the land, looking for work as a hired sword or bandit. As a result, DeNiro's character injects a somber, realistic tone at odds with the superman-heroics so typical of the action genre.
However, the filmmakers are only half-heartedly dedicated to Sam and his situation. Once the main mission gets started, the action scenes completely take over Ronin. While some of the chase scenes are guaranteed to leave you wincing and dodging in your seat, the sheer abundance of action sequences eventually nullifies the characters. As a result, regardless of DeNiro and his performance as Sam, Ronin becomes just another big budget action movie that wallows in its own pyrotechnics. We're supposed to be impressed and thrilled by the car crashes and the blunt violence; however, after a non-stop hour's worth of action, it all starts to look alike. And that's a shame because Sam is one of the most interesting lead characters to grace an action movie in the past decade.
Other characters also make an impression, especially Natascha McElhone as the woman in charge of the covert team. She and Sam share a professional appreciation for each other that begins to spill over into their personal lives, but their dangerous profession only allows for business relationships. Personal lives are irrelevant. And Jean Reno (who scored big in La Femme Nikita and The Professional) lends some strong support as a team member who quickly learns to appreciate Sam's skill and knowledge.
Ultimately, the filmmakers fall prey to the action-movie genre and let the promising characters deteriorate into a blurry, confusing mess. Ronin is a near-miss. With more attention to Sam, this might have been a great movie.
[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]