by Del Harvey
John Frankenheimer gives us the most intelligent suspense thriller in recent memory, and there’s still plenty of action for those more testosterone-prone among you.
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In John Frankenheimer’s 1998 suspense thriller Ronin, a group of individuals with special skills is brought together for a one-of-a-kind job. They are offered a tidy sum of money to steal an object from a wealthy, and heavily guarded, party. The object is a case, and its contents are never revealed. The identity of the party holding the case is never revealed, either. But, for purposes of the story, this is not important.
The band of men gathered to pull this job are relics of a different era, each applying different skills and methods in order to accomplish their individual tasks. There is a preface to the film which explains the meaning of the word “ronin.” In feudal Japan, samurai who lost their lord became, essentially, without purpose or alliance or, ultimately, without meaning. Cast out from the only world available to them, they wandered the country until they could find some shred of familial connection to ally with, or they committed hari kiri (suicide). In the year 1998, long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of “world wars,” this group of specialists are truly ronin, relics of another time struggling to find purpose, and living from one job to the next.
While this may sound like a scenario for just another action flick, it is far from that mundane misanthrope. Director Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Birdman of Alcatraz) trimmed away the “fat” of background errata and left us a compelling, intellectually stimulating cinematic treat. The characters are introduced slowly and tantalizingly, allowing the viewer to be pulled in while also permitting multiple layers to build. The result is a masterpiece of double-crosses, misrepresentations, and surprises that never fails to entertain.
The actors were well-chosen, and their belief in their roles and the story are obvious in every frame. Robert DeNiro is Sam, one of two Americans (Ronin takes place in France), and he makes reference to his experience in the war - a true sign of a relic. When asked, his weapon of choice is a .45, because “it served his country well in the war.”
Showing his military prowess, he is immediately at odds with the British character of Spence, played by Sean Bean (Patriot Games, Goldeneye), who lies about his background and is soon revealed as the obvious faker in the group.
The very fine Jean Reno (The Professional, La Femme Nikita, Les Visiteurs, Mission Impossible) plays Vincent, a local who has the exceptional skill of knowing everyone and having access to everything. Besides Sam he is the other obvious professional in the group, and they bond immediately.
The other two members are Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking The Waves, Good Will Hunting) as Gregor, the computer and tech wizard who plays a key part in the confiscation of the case. The last member of the group is Larry, the other American and the driver, played by Skip Sudduth, who appears on the new TV show Third Watch.
Their leader is Dierdre, played by Natascha McIlhone (The Truman Show, The Devil’s Own), an Irish woman who is as hard-edged as the men. She resists giving anything away no matter how hard they press. After they make their play for the case and one of them pulls a double-cross, then she sides with DeNiro, or at least appears to while they formulate new plans to regain the prized case.
It is at this point in the story that their employer enters the picture, keeping his distance and anonymity from the crew. Jonathan Pryce (Stigmata, Evita) plays Seamus, a renegade leader in the IRA. His motives are unclear, but his need to obtain the case is all-important.
There are several more twists and turns, and some Russian spies are brought in as possible buyers for the case, as well as to add another layer of mistrust. There is also plenty of well thought out action and a wonderfully photographed chase sequence through Paris that keeps you on the edge of your sofa.
In spite of the lack of explanation of the contents of the case, or the need to obtain it by either the traitor within the group or the character of Seamus, by the story’s end we are given a very satisfying resolution to an intelligent and involving thriller, which is one of the few recent films which can claim that title honestly. Everyone is left with a wanting, a missed opportunity, as was the case with the Japanese ronin, and as is so true in real life. Ronin is well worth viewing at least once.
And don’t forget the popcorn.
Del Harvey is a founder of Film Monthly who lives in Chicago. He is a devout Bears fan — and wishes there were more humans as fine as Walter Payton.
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