Maybe the shadow organization knows Review: In Frankenheimer's latest thriller, old Cold War warriors have one more job to do. But what is it?

September 25, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

You don't know much about these guys. Only that they've got a job to do.

John Frankenheimer's "Ronin" doesn't worry much (if at all) about motivation or background or what its characters do when they're not skulking about the soft underbelly of southern France. What it does worry about is the job, and how these guys come together to pull it off.

Or not. Because in "Ronin," a masterly tale of intrigue from an old hand at the genre, you're never quite sure who's doing what, who's loyal to whom, whose allegiances lie where. In fact, you're never quite sure of anything, which is but one of the film's considerable strengths.

In feudal Japan, Ronin were warriors whose masters had fallen in battle. Shamed by their inability to protect those to whom they had committed their lives, the disgraced samurai were left to wander the land, serving as bandits and warriors for hire.

The plot concerns a loosely knit grouping of former Cold War spies and secret operatives brought together by a shadowy organization that has something to do with Ireland to steal a silver suitcase. The only connection to their employer is Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), a fiery brunette who tells them only what they need to know: others want the case and its protectors would gladly kill (or be killed) to ensure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

dTC The group is dominated by Sam (Robert De Niro, perfect in the sort of role he can do in his sleep), a former CIA agent who's something of a Renaissance man when it comes to espionage. But these guys aren't exactly the A-Team; they've all done this sort of thing before, and they're too wily (and vain) to let any one person dominate.

Besides, they understand that once the job is over, they'll probably never see one another again. So alliances and friendships are fleeting; Sam's only real soulmate is Vincent (the great Jean Reno), an expert in the French underground whose job is to see that the team has everything it needs.

The film evolves into an elaborate chess match, with each character struggling mightily to figure what the others will do next next. Besides Sam, the players are Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), an electronics specialist from the former Eastern bloc; Spence (Sean Bean), a British weapons expert who seems a little too tightly wound for this sort of thing, and Larry (Skipp Sudduth), the group's driver.

Frankenheimer, whose "The Manchurian Candidate" remains one of the greatest Cold war films, is clearly in his element here, directing with a confidence and exhilarating lack of pretension. "Ronin" is filled with shady characters, claustrophobic atmosphere and whispered, offhand lines that may or may not be important. The film's climax, set at an ice-skating exhibition, is a wonderful piece of intricate misdirection that could lead to whiplash as audiences struggle to follow the plot threads and characters.

But "Ronin" isn't all intrigue and skullduggery. This is John Frankenheimer, after all, a director who never met a car chase he didn't want to top. And he has plenty of opportunities here, as his stunt drivers whip through the streets of Paris at dizzying speeds. If anything, "Ronin" probably dips into the car-chase well once too often, but you'll probably be gripping the chair arm too tightly to notice.

'Ronin'

Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Released by MGM/UA

Rated R (strong violence and some language)

Running time 121 minutes

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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