opening scene of Ronin, the latest comeback thriller by famed comeback-thriller
director John Frankenheimer, thunders with portent. You can tell this by
the great number of times the soundtrack hits those familiar crescendos
of bass. Robert De Niro walks down a dark alley: Da da da! He stops
and places a gun underneath a crate: Da da da! He goes into a French
bistro just before it closes: Da da da! He asks to use the restroom:
Da da DAAAA!
Right at this point of ultimate tension, youre probably thinking: Something is going to happen here. As a moviegoer, youve been conditioned to anticipate this and its not an unwarranted expectation. After all, you just sat through a whole bunch of menacing title cards that explained how "ronin" are masterless samurai who basically wander the countryside kicking ass. Then you ended up with Robert De Niro walking around a dark studio backlot (probably the one left over from Irma la Douce) wearing a jaunty little cap and a raincoat. This guys supposed to be a ronin? you ask yourself. I think Im intrigued.
So here we go: De Niro comes back from the restroom after secretly unlocking the back door (the door to the alley with the gun!). He stares at the bartender. The bartender stares at a customer. The customer stares at a different customer. "The man in the wheelchair sent you, didnt he?" the bartender asks cryptically. Da da da! And then AND THEN nada. Zip. Nothing. They all load up into a VW bus and drive off. What was with the whole gun routine? "I always like to have an exit," De Niro explains. Well, okaybut why not just keep the gun in your pocket in case you actually need to defend yourself inside the bar, which would probably be a whole lot more likely?
Thus, we quickly come to Ronins biggest problem: It offers only the appearance of being clever, rather than delivering any actual cleverness. On the surface, its an old-school spy thriller, the kind with Byzantine plots, international intrigue, and big questions about personal morality. In reality, its just another modern action pic with characters who solve their problems with machine guns and car chases.
Somewhere along the line in Ronins production, some creative decisions must have gone horribly wrong. Perhaps the studio was afraid to make an action movie without big explosions. Maybe Frankenheimer felt he had to show he can still run with the MTV boys. Or perhaps screenwriters today are only good at creating a set-upand are pathetically dreadful at following through with a logical storyline.
At first, Ronin appears to buck the Con-Air trend of presenting no scene longer than 22.3 seconds. Instead, it lets us meet its quirky cast of characters while developing an interesting plot: De Niro is apparently an ex-CIA agent ("Sam") who has joined a rogues gallery of deadly experts for the simple assignment of retrieving a briefcase. Who owns the briefcase? How is it guarded? Who wants it? Whats in it? Mysteries all. The squad is only informed of its mission; its up to Sam to figure out the rest. If he lives, that is.
Not bad, eh? The topline mustve read something like "The Usual Suspects meets Pulp Fiction with a little French Connection thrown in." Even better, its got the feel of a caper flickwe get to watch the crack team of mercenaries scope out their quarry, painstakingly recording their every move and encoding it on bleeping computer monitors, plotting out the perfect plan to retrieve the briefcase despite overwhelming odds. But at the risk of spoiling your fun, let me tell you how Sam and company solve the big case: They blow everybody away with machine guns and then take it. Whew! These guys ARE masters of covert operations!
Of course, things go wrong with their ingenious plot, but its more indicative of how the movie continually goes wrong itselfevery time it sets up the audiences expectations for brainy sleight-of-hand, Ronin delivers sledgehammer blows to the cranium. A good third of the movie seems to be composed of car chases in narrow French streets. While a good chase scene can bring the nerves to a tingle, having to watch one for 10 minutes it feels more like a numbing sensation, taking the viewer out of Bullitt country straight into The Dukes of Hazzard. Ronin does this three times.
More troubling are the screenwriters attempts to make De Niros character a mercenary of ethics, honor, and integrityeven as he kills innocent bystanders by the dozens. In Ronin, the French population gets slaughtered like cattletheyre run over by speeding cars, theyre riddled by machine gun fire, theyre burned alive by exploding trucks. Meanwhile, were supposed to believe that Sam is on a higher ethical plane than your typical merc and is, in fact, fighting the good fight. How come he doesnt even flinch as he splatters French citizens across cafe windows? Maybe theyre all waiters.
Leave it to good ol French actor Jean Reno to salvage at least some semblance of character, however. Now heres a cold-blooded killer you can root for, particularly when hes wearing his little Frenchy stretch cap. In film after mediocre film (The Professional, Mission: Impossible, Godzilla), he plays the same cool cat: The badass merc for hire with a heart of tarnished gold. God bless im, hell probably never be allowed to play any other part in an American film, but he always manages to make his character intriguing, magnetic, and likableattributes that the rest of Ronin seriously lacks.