Erstwhile ace thrillermaker John Frankenheimer channels the spirit of 70s action movies in Ronin, a downbeat action picture that boasts Robert De Niro, several lovely European locations, a great gunfight, and some of the goddamnedest car chases you’ve ever seen. At its best, Ronin certainly feels as good as, say, The French Connection, still a touchstone for contemporary action movies (Frankenheimer himself directed the more protracted sequel). And at its worst, it’s still a welcome respite from the dozens of slapstick “action” pictures that have swarmed out of Hollywood in recent years.

De Niro plays Sam, the sharpest among a dour ensemble of mercenaries hired for a dangerous mission with little idea of what they’re chasing, why it’s valuable, and who wants it so badly. (They just know there’s a wad of cash at the end of the line.) Jean Reno (Leon/The Professional, Godzilla), always a good thing in an action film, is introverted second banana Vincent, who’s nearly as smart as Sam but less vocal about it. Other major players include the group’s Irish leader Dierdre (Natascha McElhone of The Truman Show and The Devil’s Own), who knows what’s going on but is reluctant to explain, and geeky Russian Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard of Breaking the Waves). Also involved in this milieu are Sean Bean and Skipp Sudduth, with Jonathan Pryce skulking around the outskirts. Tensions will flare, the team will splinter, and ulterior motives will eventually be uncovered.

Credited screenwriters J.D. Zeik and the pseudonymous David Mamet demonstrate how far ahead of this shit they are by introducing the film’s MacGuffin — a mysterious suitcase that becomes the object of ever-more-tortured subterfuge on the parts of the hired help as well as shadowy figures from the world stage. Ironically, the writers don’t pay much more attention to character and motive than they do to that suitcase, with the result that each plot development is of the if-you-say-so variety, just a freeway to get the hard-boiled characters from one explosive action set piece to the next.

Fair enough. Those set pieces are very entertaining. The film’s first hour is rounded out by a white-knuckle car chase through narrow European streets that culminates in a clamorous gunfight reminiscent of the big one in the middle of Michael Mann’s Heat. A later chase scene through Parisian streets and tunnels, against oncoming traffic, is even more harrowing.

Beyond all that, the picture occasionally decides it’s onto something profound, as with one enigmatic conversation about masterless Samurai warriors in feudal Japan — the Ronin of the title. The dialogue is meant, no doubt, to illuminate the big question of who’s loyal to whom, and to add some shading to De Niro’s character, an ex-CIA operative gone into business for himself. But the movie never grabs hold on an emotional level (a romantic subplot involving Sam and Deirdre is particularly chilly), and thus such noodling goes to waste. Smart, stylish, and pleasurable on its own terms, Ronin can afford not to invest the lives of its jaded hotshots with any real gravity.

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (as Richard Weisz)
from a story by Zeik

Cinematography by Robert Fraisse
Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, and Jonathan Pryce
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Panavision)
USA, 1998

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