Gone are the days in movies when a somewhat cryptic or symbolic title could go unexplained for perhaps three quarters of a story.
A long way into Ronin, a shadowy, benevolent figure (played by veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale) leans over his miniature recreation of a landscape in battle and narrates the Japanese legend of the Forty-Seven Ronin – a band of masterless warriors wandering the countryside, selling their skills however they can – to a reflective Robert De Niro.
Fearing mass alienation, however, the makers of Ronin have decided to also preface their movie with a potted, printed version of the same explanation – thus rendering the later, charming scene rather redundant.
This is only one of the ways in which Ronin feels like a film from another era uneasily transported into our own. Director John Frankenheimer, once lauded as an American great for The Manchurian Candidate (1963) and Seconds (1966), has had a hard time riding the cultural waves of subsequent decades.
Ronin gives him a shot at doing again what he does best: solidly professional, hard-boiled action, where every move is precisely, logistically figured out.
Although Frankenheimer was also once considered a political filmmaker, there is little politics in Ronin. The masterless warrior legend is effectively yoked to a bewildering diaspora of schemes, counter-schemes and operatives tangling in the abstract, borderless confusion of a New World Order.
As often in films about professionalism, each character has a speciality that gives them steely focus and an almost mythic stature – the techno-expert (Stellan Skarsgard), the explosives expert (Jean Reno), and of course the team leader (De Niro). The spectacle of these actors striking sparks off each other is a constant delight.
Everything unravels more or less sensibly in the film's chaotic climax, but overall plot or theme coherence is not high on the film's agenda. Frankenheimer is more interested in the small games of power played by a bunch of men (and one woman, Natascha McElhone) who are furiously trying to stay alive, while also hoping to gain a bargaining advantage. They are driven by their wits, not ideology.
This movie is great fun to watch in a slightly nostalgic, old-fashioned way. Everything is controlled and consistently stylised – from the colour palette to the men's apparel. The film's big set-piece is an extended car chase through Paris that pays due homage to Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1972), while rivalling the more contemporary dexterity of Michael Mann's Heat (1995).
Ronin lacks, however, the romantic, poetic and heightened dimensions of Mann's masterpiece. Frankenheimer is content to juice the tough guy banter ("You trying to save your skin?" – "Sure, it covers my body"), the elaborate architecture of secret sites and narrow passageways, and the colourful rituals of masculine self-testing: a scene where De Niro supervises his own surgery is a highlight.
MORE Frankenheimer: The Island of Dr. Moreau
© Adrian Martin January 1999