Don't be a tool and dismiss Ronin out of hand as, yawn, just another spy caper or, yikes, that movie Robert De Niro was shooting in Paris earlier this year when the gendarmes questioned him about a prostitution racket. One can only imagine De Niro's response to being interrogated for nearly a day ("You talkin' to me?"). The Oscar-winning raging bull denied involvement (with pimps, not the flick) and vowed never to return to France.
Ronin, directed at full-suspense throttle by John Frankenheimer, also trades in disillusion. De Niro uses the code name Sam as a former CIA strategist who has turned mercenary since the dissolution of the Cold War deprived his killing skills of a higher purpose. Betrayal is a constant in this world where money has long since replaced honor as a motivator Ronin — the title references a Japanese feudal term to describe shamed samurai who have failed in their warrior mission to protect their masters — sets De Niro up as the top gun among a dirty half-dozen international covert operatives: Larry (Skipp Sudduth), another American, handles the driving; the British Spence (Sean Bean) calls the shots on weapons; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), from the Eastern Bloc, excels at electronics; Vincent (Jean Reno) is the French coordinator; and Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) is the Irish rep for the mysterious client (Jonathan Pryce), who barks orders by cell phone. Target: a briefcase. Mission: to steal it, by any means necessary.
That Ronin is the real deal in action fireworks owes much to a first-rate cast that can toss a quip as deftly as a firebomb. It's a kick to watch De Niro in James Bond mode — revving it up with cars, babes and bang-bang. And there's more. De Niro, a great actor who can be badly miscast (The Mission) or misused (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), eases into the ambiguities of Sam, and his comfort level allows him to explore the deeper levels of the script by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz. The latter is the pseudonym of playwright David Mamet, who provided De Niro with one of his best recent roles, as the spin doctor in Wag the Dog and whose uncredited rewrite for Ronin furnishes the star with terse, tasty dialogue about the nature of guilt and responsibility.
Still, the star of this show is Frankenheimer. At sixty-eight, the director doesn't stoop to hollow digital dazzle to jazz an audience. Long, fluid camera movements emphasize the action that reveals the character. Frankenheimer is an old pro (for 1962's The Manchurian Candidate alone he deserves a place in the cinema pantheon), but no way is he old hat. Guns blaze, blood spills, and the milieu is as modern as the sleek cars racing through Paris tunnels in high-speed midnight chases that eerily evoke the death of Princess Diana.
With the help of the gifted French cinematographer Robert Fraisse (The Lover), Frankenheimer moves with mounting tension from an abandoned Paris warehouse where the strangers first meet to a huge arena where a Russian skating star, played by Katarina Witt, becomes the focus of an assassination plot. The plot of the film itself is often as hard to navigate as the narrow streets of Nice, where Frankenheimer stages the film's most exciting chase.
Ronin represents an exhilarating return to form for Frankenheimer. After an auspicious takeoff directing live TV drama in the 1950s, he made his name in films by directing provocative political thrillers (Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Black Sunday) and acute social dramas (Birdman of Alcatraz, All Fall Down, I Walk the Line, Seconds). Then, in the late Seventies, when Frankenheimer admitted to problems with alcohol, his touch turned cold for more than a decade with such duds as Prophecy, Dead-Bang and Year of the Gun. TV, which started him, also saved him. For directing Against the Wall, The Burning Season and Andersonville, he won consecutive Emmy awards; last fall brought him more acclaim, for George Wallace. Ronin, with its tale of a cynical warrior seeking redemption, brings him back to features in high style. (I'm not counting 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau — no director could have survived that Marlon Brando fiasco.)
With De Niro, who played the young version of Brando's Don Corleone in The Godfather Part II, Frankenheimer achieves a genuine collaboration. Actor and director both know about compromise in Hollywood — about the fall from samurai to ronin. In 1982, Frankenheimer also juxtaposed ancient and modern Japan in The Challenge, but the film was blunted by empty pyrotechnics. In Ronin, Frankenheimer is back in touch with the feelings that made him want to be a filmmaker. "Relax, darling, it's just a game," Sam tells Deirdre of the spy business. Maybe the same goes for movies, but if so, Frankenheimer and De Niro are determined to play the game with honor. They're American samurai.