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Director John Frankenheimer falls on his sword with Ronin.

By Coury Turczyn

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  The 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, you're probably thinking: Something is going to happen here. As a moviegoer you've been conditioned to anticipate this, and it's 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 guy's supposed to be a ronin? you ask yourself. I think I'm 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, didn't 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, okay—but 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 Ronin's biggest problem: It offers only the appearance of being clever, rather than delivering any actual cleverness. On the surface, it's an old-school spy thriller, the kind with byzantine plots, international intrigue, and big questions about personal morality. In reality, it's just another modern action pic with characters who solve their problems with machine guns and car chases.

Somewhere along the line in Ronin's 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-up—and 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 rogue's gallery of deadly experts for the simple assignment of retrieving a briefcase. Who owns the briefcase? How is it guarded? Who wants it? What's in it? Mysteries all. The squad is only informed of its mission; it's up to Sam to figure out the rest. If he lives, that is.

Not bad, eh? The topline must've read something like "The Usual Suspects meets Pulp Fiction with a little French Connection thrown in." Even better, it's got the feel of a caper flick—we 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 it's more indicative of how the movie continually goes wrong itself—every time it sets up the audience's 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 over 10 minutes 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 Niro's character a mercenary of ethics, honor, and integrity—even as he kills innocent bystanders by the dozens. In Ronin, the French population gets slaughtered like cattle—they're run over by speeding cars, they're riddled by machine gun fire, they're burned alive by exploding trucks. Meanwhile, we're 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 doesn't even flinch as he splatters French citizens across cafe windows? Maybe they're all waiters.

Leave it to good ol' French actor Jean Reno to salvage at least some semblance of character, however. Now here's a cold-blooded killer you can root for, particularly when he's 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, he'll probably never be allowed to play any other part in an American film, but he always manages to make his character intriguing, magnetic, and likable—attributes that the rest of Ronin seriously lacks.

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