A scene from 'Ronin'
Courtesy Photo
*** stars 121 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 25, 1998
Directed by John Frankenheimer

Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Natascha McElhone


Unusual photography, screen-filling car chases and exotic locales will definately benefit from wide screen format. But if your TV is small, pan & scan may be the way to go so you don't lose character subtleties and some small visual details.

The feature alone is so much better in widescreen on DVD than it ever could be on video, but Frankenheimer's commentary track is great, and at least as engrossing as the movie itself. Just his annotations on the movie's incredible car chases are worth the purchase price. Alternate ending an interesting twist.

Commentary, alternate ending

2.35:1 ratio; Dolby 5.1; captioning, French

DVD RATING: ***1/2

'Ronin' a steal- the- briefcase action- thriller with a Mensa IQ

By Rob Blackwelder

Essentially a high-brow, black ops "Mission: Impossible," "Ronin" is a gunfights-and-car-chases spy thriller smartened up with some arresting intrigue, keener than expected filmmaking and wily, cryptic performances that take it a step beyond the standard quips and stunts of the genre.

A steal-the-briefcase yarn with a Mensa IQ, had it been directed by, say, Renny Harlin and starred Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise, "Ronin" would likely have been just another forgettable action flick with explosions in picturesque foreign locales.

But "Ronin" was directed by John Frankenheimer -- the genius hand behind "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May," two of the most intelligent films of the espionage ilk -- and features an international cast of exceptional, if not widely-recognized, actors.

Except for Robert De Niro, of course (everybody knows him), who stars as a rogue ex-government operative hired by parties unknown to help carry out an ambush operation designed to seize a heavily-guarded briefcase from a heavily-guarded, apparently Eastern European official.

Teamed in Paris with a contingent of other insidious operatives-for-hire -- including Jean Reno ("The Professional"), Stellan Skarsgard ("Good Will Hunting"), Sean Bean ("Golden Eye") and Jonathan Pryce ("Tomorrow Never Dies") -- they are told very little by their contact for the job (Natascha McElhone, "The Truman Show"), creating an dense air of suspicion that rakes the characters with mistrust from the movie's earliest scenes.

Sure it has impressive explosions, shoot-outs and car chases (in fact, it has two of the most seat-gripping car chases I can remember, over the freeways and through the woods to the very narrow streets of Nice), but this is a spy picture more concerned with its manifold layers of machination than it is with any action sequence.

The briefcase is snatched by the team in a terrifically disorienting, street cafe-destroying, gun-and-grenade-launcher battle, but once the smoke clears, guess what? The briefcase and one of the team members are gone, leading to a dizzying series of crosses and double crosses as the remainder of the group hunt for the traitor and the mysterious case, knowing it's worth significant risk and expense to several governments (and other entities), but never knowing what it contains.

The screenplay lathers "Ronin" with a sustained tension through characters subtly sizing each other up and ultimately questioning the wisdom of trusting anyone but themselves.

While none of the performances are particularly memorable, largely because all of them are deliberately abstruse, each person's history is hinted at -- De Niro was (is?) CIA, Pryce and McElhone appear to have IRA connections -- and loyalties change quickly between them as the strata of deceit unfold.

In short, you're never sure throughout the picture just what is really going on. (I mean that in a good way.)

Frankenheimer accentuates this feeling with a perpetual motion photography style and fish-eye close-ups. He allows the characters to command the picture, but his technique is engrossing -- almost distracting at times -- as he finds unusual places to put the camera and throws in beautiful aerial shots during chases and to establish locales.

"Ronin" (the title is Japanese for a samurai without a master) has a few elementary plot problems that the smart set this film is aimed at will pick up on if they step away from the relentless pace for a moment (example: one of these ace spies doesn't seem to realize he can be traced by his cell phone), but small indiscretions are forgivable in what is an entertaining and intelligent European ensemble thriller into which Robert De Niro was thrust for the sake of American ticket sales.

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