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Movie Review: Ronin --- Boredom, shootout, chase

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Written by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz

Based on a story by J.D. Zeik

With Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgerd, Jonathan Pryce

Watching Ronin is like observing a highway pileup in progress: A large number of cars are getting smashed, there are a lot of wheels spinning, and various bits and pieces are flying around, clearly a large expenditure of both money and energy. It is a very sad sight, it goes nowhere, and one can't help but commiserate with its victims. Overall, it's bloated and ineffectual - very much like this metaphor.

The general mood of the film is perfectly represented by the opening scene. For about five minutes the camera circles around a Paris cafe. It's late in the evening, people are entering, giving each other meaningful and/or suspicious looks, and leaving. One man asks for a glass of wine and is given a beer (although this could be a simple continuity error). Another one hides a gun under a crate in the alley, and the camera follows them for few minutes. People keep coming and going, and after a few more minutes, everyone leaves, without anything having happened. My reaction to this whole sequence was precisely "Oh. Ok. And...?"

The plot of Ronin (somewhat explained in the next sequence, which is more lucid but as boring) has something to do with stealing a mysterious suitcase from its mysterious owner and giving it to some other mysterious people. Nothing is made clear on any of the above; the clearly McGuffinesque nature of this whole setup notwithstanding, at this point the movie has been going on for about 20 minutes, almost nothing is clear, absolutely nothing has happened, and there's absolutely nothing to care about.

After this, Ronin finally settles into its main mode of operation. There's yet another dimly lit sequence which attempts to achieve suspense by making it unclear what's going on, after which there is a brief shootout, filmed entirely in closeups of the people firing guns (with their locations, targets, and accuracies left, it seems, to the audience's imagination), after which there's a chase. The rest of the movie repeats this recipe four of five times. There are long stretches of time where pretty much nothing happens, then a brief and confusing shootout, and a long chase. Boredom, shootout, chase. Boredom, shootout, chase. Boredom, shootout, chase.

Of course, some of the chases are reasonably diverting. There's one race through a crowd of people at the ruins of an ancient arena which is intermittently entertaining, and there's an extended car chase where one vehicle is pursuing another one through heavy oncoming highway traffic. Two things are very impressive about this sequence: How hard it must have been to film it (the logistics, presumably, were utterly daunting), and how little one cares about what's going on during it.

Since the movie required very little thought, I had to contemplate other issues, like how come all these great people are involved with this turkey. It stars Robert De Niro (here he is reliable, but nothing more), Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgard (both on hand clearly only for a fast paycheck), and Jean Reno (who was twice as interesting with half as much screen time in, heaven help us, Godzilla). Only Natascha McElhone (The Truman Show) has some screen presence, although her part is grossly underwritten. Why they thought it was a good idea to cast Katarina Witt as - surprise! - an ice skater with one and a half lines of dialogue (in Russian) is absolutely beyond me. The involvement of the veteran director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) and screenwriter David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner) makes the general ineptitude of Ronin even more head-scratching (at least Mamet is credited under the pseudonym Richard Weisz).

There's only one thing in Ronin that deserves any commendation: The movie takes place in Europe, and the scenery - mostly the stretches of French Riviera - are hauntingly beautiful. Ultimately, this Mission: Impossible wannabe succeeds only as a travelogue.