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As a director of action thrillers, John Frankenheimer has been a peerless stylist for nearly four decades -- without leaning on a pile of glitzy special effects. What's more, his most memorable movies, from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to The Birdman of Alcatraz (also 1962) to 1986's wickedly entertaining, unappreciated 52 Pick-Up (still the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book), are rich vaults of character. Frankenheimer has a particular gift for getting the worst out of his bad guys and for finding what's wrong inside the good ones: Witness the tireless villains and the tainted detective hero in one of the finest sequels ever, French Connection II (1975). No sunny optimist, our Mr. F.
Ronin is Frankenheimer's first theatrical release since his much-troubled, absolutely dreadful remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), and it's nice to see him back in form. In this relentless festival of pursuit and betrayal, inspired by the legend of fallen samurai but set in present-day France, he not only blows up things and people with flair, he once more gets intimate with the evil behind the chaos. It doesn't diminish the proceedings one bit that the film's hero, Sam, an ex-CIA man now submerged in international intrigue as a mercenary, is played by Robert De Niro. With or without a grenade launcher in his fists, De Niro continues to exert the kind of magnetism only a handful of movie actors command. You can't wait to see what canny, wary Sam will do next -- whether it's unmasking a fraud, directing the removal of a bullet from his rib cage (without anesthetic, of course), or simply lighting up a Gauloise and looking at it. Does De Niro also speak a smattering of French? In Ronin he does.
As is common in a Frankenheimer picture, the plot lines get a bit tangled in Ronin, but the atmosphere is tense, the style impeccable. As always, the characters ripen and deepen as the action intensifies, a lesson the handlers of Messieurs Stallone and Schwarzenegger might do well to heed.
Some basics. An unseen employer, possibly Irish, assembles an international team of ex-soldiers, munitions experts, and shadowy adventurers for the purpose of stealing an aluminum briefcase from a phalanx of tough guys wearing European sunglasses. An Irish beauty, Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) is ostensibly in charge, but the American Sam and a savvy Frenchman called Vincent (Jean Reno) emerge as the soul of the operation. Three shootouts, four car chases, a dozen killings, and -- let's see here, is it two or three? -- double-crosses later, we apparently learn who's scamming who, although the issue is far from clear.
In the end we also learn what's inside the aluminum briefcase for which so many have died in so many ways -- a factory-fresh MacGuffin that might have Hitchcock himself smiling.
Once you're in Frankenheimer country, it doesn't do to examine the logic of action or the consistency of motive too carefully. In his long career the man has directed 250 movies and TV dramas (including the recent Emmy-winner George Wallace), and the best of them ride along on surreal energy. The bizarre plotting of The Manchurian Candidate, with its brainwashed war veteran and evil mother, might not pass muster in an undergrad screenwriting class, but it contributed to one great paranoid nightmare of a movie. In Grand Prix (1966), car nut Frankenheimer created a valentine to horsepower with no plot to speak of, but the racing sequences were so exquisitely filmed that, three decades later, it remains the model of the genre.
With Ronin we're unsure who Sam is or why he's mixed up with the heist. He says he needs the money, but we're not buying. Still, the character makes a kind of cubist sense. Cut loose from his roots, a rogue with a shattered past (like the Ronin, samurai who failed their masters), he lives by instinct and a warrior code that's tinged with postmodern anxiety: "Whenever there's a doubt," Sam tell us, "there is no doubt."
There is no doubt, either, that despite all their carefully laid plans and procedures, Sam, Vincent, and their colleagues are about to meet stiff resistance -- and temptation aplenty, from assorted power-mongers who also want the pivotal briefcase. Among Frankenheimer's set pieces: A scary midnight shootout on the banks of the Seine, a Paris car chase to end all Paris car chases (complete with an elaborate new disaster in the notorious Princess Diana tunnel), and a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse in the narrow streets of Arles, a village van Gogh made famous. Posing as married tourists, Deirdre and Sam enact an uncommonly clever reconnaissance in sunny Nice. In the end, the screenplay by J.D. Zeik and "Richard Weisz" (actually playwright and filmmaker David Mamet) is crammed with turncoat Germans, shady ex-KGB agents, Irish revolutionaries, and even a championship ice skater -- some living, some dead.
Director Frankenheimer's most ardent fans cannot be blamed if they see Ronin as a summation of sorts. Certainly, it's full of personal trademarks. As in French Connection II and The Holcroft Covenant (1985), he gives us Euro intrigue in squalid rented rooms and glamorous hotel lobbies. Movies and TV have become saturated with automotive mayhem, but no one stages a car chase or a twenty-vehicle chain reaction quite like Frankenheimer -- great camera work and daring stunt driving woven together with dizzying skill. Reaching back to the climactic moment of Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer has also installed a sniper in a sports arena. We trust this isn't the 68-year-old director's last movie, but it's one that neatly collects his concerns and expresses his style.
Meanwhile, De Niro becomes the consummate Frankenheimer hero -- discontented, driven, pure of purpose, but stained by sin. Zeik and Mamet may have written the part, but it's Frankenheimer and De Niro who provide all the nuance. When Sam jots notes on the caper to come in the border of a newspaper, it becomes a revelation of character. When he gazes at an exquisitely painted miniature samurai in a remote French farmhouse, it's as though he's looking at himself. When asked by a co-conspirator if he's obsessed with saving his own skin, he cracks: "Yeah. My body's inside it."
It's safe to say that John Frankenheimer's moviemaking career is inside Ronin.
Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet. Starring Robert De Niro, Natascha McElhone, Jean Reno, and Stellan Skarsgard.
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