Ronin is what you’ve been waiting for. If you’ve sat, bored and resentful, through any number of Hollywood “thrillers” weighed down by one incompetent decision after another, Ronin is the movie you really wanted. The movie is unapologetically pulpy — it even includes several examples of Roger Ebert’s famous Fruit Cart cliché — but it’s a beautiful piece of work: elegant without being ponderous, complex without being complicated. It’s also a triumphant return to form by director John Frankenheimer, whose The Manchurian Candidate is now considered one of the great American films. Ronin isn’t quite in that league, but at least it’s playing the same sport.
In Paris, a motley group of mercenaries are assembled. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: find a gray metal suitcase and steal it. Any questions? The bare-bones abstractness of Ronin has a rigorous purity that the long and boring Heat, a three-hour epic about a cop trying to catch a thief, could only dream of. I’d call the movie meat-and-potatoes, except its flavor is too European for that. With its international cast, art-house feel (cinematographer Robert Fraisse and composer Elia Cmiral can take a bow), and steady pulse, Ronin is like an amped-up ’90s rewrite of the ’60s cool-crime movies of Jean-Pierre Melville and Seijun Suzuki. Not to mention The Usual Suspects, John Woo, and everything in between.
The script, by J.D. Zeik (who conceived the story) and David Mamet (who reportedly did a page-one rewrite and took a screen credit as “Richard Weisz”), sketches in the characters: Sam (Robert De Niro), the ex-CIA agent whose antennae are always tuned to danger; Vincent (Jean Reno), a French mercenary; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), a deadpan assassin; Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), the Irish arranger who sets everything up; and Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), who’s connected to Deirdre somehow. The characters are underwritten, but in a way that allows the actors to fill in the blanks — a dangerous move when attempted by filmmakers and actors who don’t know what they’re doing.
The result here is casual magic. Frankenheimer alternates between bang-up action and relaxed dialogue scenes; the connection between the two is the movie’s general loose rhythm. De Niro and Reno are as plausible sipping coffee together (they’re like working stiffs after a long day at the office) as they are driving a speeding car through the tunnels of Paris. Ronin shrugs at its own crisp professionalism, like an assassin who’s no longer impressed by his way with a rifle. On every level, the movie is smoothly underplayed, and the climactic explosive moments really count for something. The events unfold with a neat precision that has to be part Mamet and part Frankenheimer — who turn out to be a dream team.
I never thought car chases could do anything but bore me any more, but Ronin sports some of the most electrifying set pieces since the Mad Max series. The exhilaration comes not from the excessiveness of the destruction but from the snappy rhythm of it, the clear God’s-eye view of who’s where and which collisions follow from other collisions. The result is what’s often referred to as “pure cinema,” and the label fits Ronin snugly. John Frankenheimer is 68 now, and young pups like Michael Bay could learn a lot from this old hand. Ronin feels like the work of a fresh new talent, as, in a sense, it is: Despite enjoyable oddities like 1996′s The Island of Dr. Moreau and taut HBO films like 1994′s Against the Wall, Frankenheimer hasn’t had the success or acclaim he’s deserved, or the right projects for his skills. It’s good to have him back, and great to see him working with such confidence and class.