Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 20, 2015)
If I recall correctly, 1998’s Ronin disappointed me when I saw it theatrically. I thought it looked cool based on the previews, but the final result left me cold – I guess. Frankly, I barely remembered the movie over the years, so I’m not completely sure what reaction it inspired in me.
Obviously it didn’t make enough of an impression for me to avoid it down the road, so here we go again. The film starts with a text preface that explains how samurai whose liege lords died on their watch suffered shame and were forced to become rogue warriors. They no longer merited the title of “samurai”. Instead, these mercenaries became known as “ronin”.
So there’s your title! The movie hops to present-day Paris to introduce us to a group of “guns for hire” brought together on a mission under Deirdre (Natasha McElhone). The gang includes Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth). Deirdre instructs them that they need to ambush a group of five to eight men to retrieve a briefcase.
And that’s all she tells them to start, as she keeps the contents of the case a secret. The rest of the movie’s action revolves around this mysterious package. Various folks double-cross each other as the different parties try to take control of the case. Sam remains in the forefront as he tries to come out on top.
Now that I’ve seen Ronin three times, I know why I didn’t remember it in 1998: the movie rarely rises above the level of “mediocre”. I don’t mean that to convey that the film is bad or truly problematic. Instead, I simply think it fails to stick to the viewer’s brain. It does just enough right to keep us interested over its two hours, but it doesn’t manage to stimulate us more than that.
With less talent at hand, that could be acceptable. However, given the number of “names” at work on Ronin, it becomes a shame that the film lacks much pizzazz.
Director John Frankenheimer creates a real throwback flick. He makes virtually no concessions to modern cinema, as Ronin feels like something he could have created 30 years earlier. Indeed, it reminds me of gritty classics like The French Connection with its rough, unflinching world.
In no way does this old-fashioned form of movie-making bother me, so I don’t want these remarks to convey that I think Ronin drags due to stylistic choices. Indeed, I think it’s nice that we get a film without any of the modern excesses that mar so many efforts. Ronin goes with a non-nonsense, all-business tone.
While I feel like that should make matters satisfying, Ronin never catches fire. Frankly, there’s a real lack of inspiration behind the cameras. Old-fashioned filmmaking is good, but cliché, tired filmmaking isn’t acceptable. I get the impression that Frankenheimer goes with the tried and true largely because he can’t think of any other way to work.
The case at the center of the movie acts as a classic MacGuffin. That factor means that the story of Ronin becomes more than slightly frustrating. From the very start, the film makes it transparently clear that the case really doesn’t matter other than as at motivator for our principals. It’s unimportant what happens to it or what it contains, and that seems obvious from the beginning. I wish the flick hid this fact better, as that would allow the story to become more interesting.
This doesn’t mean that Ronin doesn’t come without thrills and surprises. We don’t ever quite know who to trust, and events change our allegiances rapidly. Of course, we always stick with De Niro’s Sam, and Reno’s Vincent gives us little reason for concern. The others create more complicated characters that we find it more difficult to trust.
All of that creates a little tension as Ronin runs. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough to sustain the movie. We get a few decent action sequences and a mildly involving thriller but not much depth or spark. This is a wholly ordinary flick.