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77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A hard-edged spy-thriller full of intelligence and energy, March 21, 2006
This review is from: Ronin (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) (DVD)
The definition of the Japanese word ronin describes it as a samurai who has lost his master from the ruin of or the fall of his master. John Frankenheimer (with some final draft help with the script from David Mamet) takes this notion of a masterless samurai and brings to it a post-Cold War setting and sensibility that more than pay homage to the great stories and film of the ronin. One particular story about ronin that Frankenheimer references in detail is the classic story of the 47 Ronin. Ronin shows that in the latter-stages of his career, Frankenheimer was still the master of the political/spy-thriller genre. He infuses the film with a real hard-edge and was able to mix together both intelligence and energy in both the quieter and action-packed sequences in the film.

The film begins quietly with the introduction of the characters to be involved. We meet each individual in this quiet 10-minute scene that shows Frankenheimer's skill as a director more than Michael Bay can in two-hours of mind-numbing action. Robert De Niro as one of the two American mercenaries (or contractors) instantly becomes the focal point for everyone. His casual, but attentive reconnoitering of the Paris bar where the first meet occurs helps build tension without being overt. It's with the introduction of Jean Reno as the Frenchman in the group that we get the buddy-film dynamic as De Niro and Reno quickly create a believable camaraderie born of the times for such men during and after the Cold War. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an excellent and high-energy turn from Sean Bean as an English contractor who might not be all that he brags to be. The other American in the group was played by Skipp Sudduth who in his own understated way more than kept up with the high-caliber of actors around him. Finishing off and adding the darker and seedier aspects of the cast were Stellan Skarsgard as a former Eastern Bloc (maybe ex-KGB) operative and Jonathan Pryce as a wanted IRA commander wanted by all. The only break in all the male testosterone in the film was able played by the beautiful, yet tough Natasha McElhone. Like Sudduth, McElhone more than keeps up and matches acting skills with the likes of De Niro, Reno and Skarsgard.

The film moves from the meeting of the group to the actual operation which brought all these disparate characters together. Taking a page from Hitchcock, Frankenheimer and Mamet introduces what would become the film's MacGuffin. A MacGuffin being a plot device which helps motivates each character of its importance and yet we're left to believe only that the item is important without ever finding out why. The MacGuffin in Ronin ends up being a silver case which the IRA terrorists, the Russian Mob and seemingly every intelligence agency in Europe wants to get their hands on. It's up to De Niro and his group to steal the case from another party and this was where Frankenheimer's skill in seemlessly blending spy-thriller and action film shows. From the set-up of the team and their plans, to a near double-cross during an arms deal to the actual operation to take the case, Ronin begins to move at a clipped and tension-filled pace. There's no overly extraneous dialogue. Mamet's script-doctoring fleshes out the story and adds a sense and feel of intelligent professionalism to the characters. Outside of the Bean's braggart Englishman who gets his commeuppance from DeNiro's strict professional, everyone in the group had a skill to contribute to the operation and all did it well and believable.

The action sequences mostly involved car chases through the narrow streets of Nice, France to the metropolitan thoroughfares and tunnels of Paris. Frankenheimer shines in creating and directing these sequences. Sequences which he'd decided against the use of CGI. Using what he'd learned and perfected from his own past as a former race car driver and from his own classic film Grand Prix, Frankenheimer used real life cars and drove them through real (albeit choreographed) traffic to give the sequences that sense of reality and speed that one couldn't get with CGI. The car chase scene within the Paris thoroughfare tunnel against traffic has to go down as one of the best car chase put on film. I and those I saw the film with were on the edge of our seats as both protagonists and antagonists weaved their way through Parisian traffic at high-speed and gunfire. The crashes caused by this car chase looked believable and horrific yet the audience doesn't glance away from the screen. With just abit of help from second unit directors Luc Etienne and Michel Cheyko, Frankenheimer pretty much did most of the filming of the car chases. At times being in the car itself and doing some of the driving.

The story itself, after all the characterizations and high-energy, tense action sequences, was really bare bones and in itself its own MacGuffin. The story just becomes a prop device to help show the mercenaries' special sense of honor in regards to working with people who might've been enemies in the past and the murky world they now live in after the collapse of the black and white sensibility that was the Cold War. One little bit of trivia that I found interesting was the fact that Ronin included quite abit of actors who portrayed past James Bond villains: Sean Bean (Janus), Jonathan Pryce (Carver) and Michael Lonsdale (Drax).

In the end, Ronin became the last great film from a great director. I don't count Reindeer Games as anything but Frankenheimer picking up a check and the studio dabbling overmuch in the final look and feel of that film. Frankenheimer's Ronin is a blend of smart dialogue, hard-edged characters, and tense-filled action that he manages to blend together to make a fine and intelligent film. The story may not have made real sense in the end, but the journey the audience takes with DeNiro, Reno and McElhone's character in getting there made for a great time for all.
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Initial post: Nov 2, 2010 1:37:52 PM PDT
Great review. Good taste! :)
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