Even when at seat's-edge, biting nails, and looking for something to grab onto, enthralled viewers soon realise that this snazzy exercise in cutthroat one-upmanship is more fun house ride than do-or-die drama. Oh, there is this little thing about obtaining a mysterious metal box. But why concern yourself? While this renegade romp may steal your breath away, if you stop and think about it, you really aren't investing very much emotion.
For alas, just like the answer you gave at the job interview when they asked for your one true fault, Ronin is just too perfect. The legendary director, who has brought us such diverse classics as The Manchurian Candidate and Bird Man of Alcatraz, blissfully, stylishly, and unashamedly shows filmgoers how to hone a genre to perfection.
This means assembling a team of romantically roguish characters, breathtaking photography in Paris and on the French Riviera, the wildest chase scenes since The French Connection, and lots of picaresque dialogue. So, when one tough guy/ex-secret agent asks former CIA man Sam (Robert De Niro) if he ever killed anyone, Sam relates: "I know I really hurt someone's feelings once." And even though journeyman Frankenheimer usually holds the tongue-in-cheek stuff in carefully metered abeyance, you can't help but breathe-in the hint of glib that peppers the adventure.
The plot, you ask? Does it much matter, the film cleverly begs the question, so long as it makes the bad guys annd the good guys go at it full tilt? So, just for fun, they do toss in a bone of contention. Per screenwriters J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz, it's an elusive metal case. But what's in this box? Again, the script playfully asks, what's the difference? The Russians want it. The Irish want it. Gosh knows who else wants it. And they're all willing to kill for it. Come to think about it, we never did find out if the black statuette in The Maltese Falcon had any real intrinsic value. Yet Greenstreet, Lorre and Astor were sure crawling all over each other to get it. Bogart as Sam Spade summed it up succinctly, "It's the stuff dreams are made of."
Heading an unnamed group of international renegades hired to purloin the object in question and adding a feminine touch to Ronin is sexy IRA operative Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). Her high-priced defectors include: a fine De Niro as Sam, who incidentally reminds of Bogie; Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno) as Sam's tres Kiplingesque counterpart; sinister Stellan Skarsgard as a German technical wiz who ditched his KGB gig to go into business for himself (hey, can't beat that Keogh plan); and Skipp Sudduth as your good old, unassuming, run-of-the-mill mercenary, Larry. Repeatedly, they all ask Deirdre, "What's in the box?" She assures them it's none of their concern. Just get it.
This is the kind of movie where motley characters bide their time in threadbare apartments and swap banter, part for amusement, part to mark off their territory. It's the kind of movie where someone suddenly yells, "OK Let's go," and the tough get going. All Hell breaks loose at the drop of a hat. Guns start firing, spectacularly driven cars start flying, and the cops don't show up until one of the warring sides has decimated the sneering foe and disappeared. And it's also the kind of movie where, despite all the cynicism and useless slaughter, there's time enough for the hero to find both friendship and romance without it seeming mawkish.
De Niro and Reno form the best Franco-American alliance since the doughboys had reason to sing Mademoiselle from Armentieres. And when during a stakeout Sam suddenly gathers in Deirdre for a smooch to throw off the police, the IRA colleen's reaction is uncharacteristically surprising. But you wonder, does even Deirdre know what's in the box? And if she did, would she at least tell Sam? Ah, but no sense bothering yourself over it. What's the difference what's in the box?
Exhibiting the sign of a true cinema craftsman, the famed director makes this action-packed variation on a theme look easy. He adds bite to stereotypes, supplies nuance to cliché, and confidently knows when to let an old saw stand. But it isn't Frankenheimer's obvious skill that is so intoxicating. For there is a far more satisfying attribute at work here. Call it instinct or intuitiveness. It's what really causes his awesome ballet of high-style hooliganism to take wing. But, say, what about that box? Is the director having a bit of sport with us -- manipulating us? Will we ever find out what's in the metal case? Should we have figured it out by now?
During a neatly contemplative break in the action, Michael Lonsdale lends a nice turn as a semi-retired provocateur in the French countryside who offers asylum to a bushwhacked Sam and Vincent. The wizened host shows off the colourful Samurai figures he lovingly models, and explains that a Ronin is a Japanese warrior shamed by the loss of his liege. He continues that, rather than sign on with a new feudal master, the Ronin wander the countryside in search of mercenary adventure. It's not clear if Sam catches the metaphor. Perhaps he's too preoccupied, wondering what's in the box.