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Directed by John Frankenheimer with Robert de Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Katerina Witt, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Michael Lonsdale and Jonathan Pryce, 1998, color, 121 minutes

Label of VHS tape of Ronin

Label of VHS tape of "Ronin"

By Carter B. Horsley

A superb but convoluted thriller, "Ronin" combines exotic European locations with spectacular action sequences and a great performance by Jean Reno that matches that of Robert de Niro.

The story is about a gang assembled by a very beautiful Irish woman, Deirdre, played with remarkable intensity by Natascha McElhone, to steal a large box whose contents are never revealed. The movie begins slowly as the "hired" hands, none of whom have worked before with the others, gather at a bar in Paris. Details of the planned heist are sketchy and incomplete, but Deirdre assures them that they will be worked out in time and indicates that money is plentiful to handle the job and reward the gang for their efforts. It is not clear what everyone's role is, although Vincent, played by Reno, obviously is supposed to be a Frenchman with extensive contacts and resources, and Gregor, a Russian played coolly by Stellan Skarsgard, who bears a strong resemblance to Russell Crowe, is apparently the technical genius as he is forever fooling with his laptop.

One of the first things that the gang has to do is acquire a good arsenal and a meeting is planned with a gun-dealer that turns into an ambush in which Sam, played by de Niro, shows his alert resourcefulness and skill with his own gun, saving Vincent's life and that of Spence, the explosives expert, played with nervous bravura, by Sean Bean.

One of the gang asks Sam if he has ever killed anyone and his reply was "Once I hurt somebody's feelings." Sam, however, is no jokester and demands to know more from Deirdre, who apparently is under orders from someone else, about the caper and asserts his experience by adroitly casing the hotel where the men with the desired case are staying and rather ingenuously learning that the bodyguards for the man with the case are very professional. Sam also sees through Spencer's incompetence and Spencer is dismissed from the operation.

Deirdre's gang, which also includes an American, Larry, who is the driver, plans to get the case by attacking a three-car caravan with the man with the case and the plan works, with a great deal of gunplay, but in the midst of the action the case is switched by Gregor, who escapes with it to sell it to a Russian who is in love with famous ice-skater, Natacha Kirilova, who is played by Katarina Witt, the world's most beautiful ice-skater in real life.

The police, attracted by the shoot-out, give chase and the surviving members of the gang drive off with Deirdre at the wheel. The car chase is one of the greatest ever filmed through the streets and tunnels and highways of Paris as she drives in the wrong lanes.

In the shoot-out to get the case from the caravan, Sam is shot in the torso and Vincent takes him to a friend, Jean-Pierre, played with great sophistication by Michael Lonsdale. Sam instructs Vincent to take the bullet out of his torso and remains conscious during the operation to give him further instructions in a memorable, but gory scene.

Sam and Vincent are obviously the most professional members of the gang and have great confidence in each other and soon set out to track down Gregor, who had double-crossed them. They find out that he is in Arles, which has a great Roman amphitheater that is the scene of a wild shoot-out and chase. Gregor gets away and meets with the Russian at an ice-show where Natacha is the star performer and he tells the Russian that if there are any tricks he has someone in the audience who will shoot and kill her. The Russian does try to trick Gregor and Natacha is killed while performing on the ice in another superb scene.

The villain of the film is Jonathan Pryce who plays Seamus, an IRA fugitive who desperately wants the box, whose contents are never revealed. Seamus is utterly ruthless and in the second half of the film the plot gets very, very confusing.

In the end of the film, there is a hint that Sam might not actually be an ex-CIA operative but an active one in pursuit all the time of Seamus.

At the movie's end, Sam and Vincent have a drink in a bar and don't have too much to say but convey their professional respect for one another, which perhaps might lead to a sequel. It is a coda almost like that in "Heat" in which Al Pacino holds Robert de Niro's hand as de Niro dies from Pacino's gunshots, a silent camaraderie and indeed that is what this movie is really about, trust and strangers.

In many ways, "Ronin" is like a lot of espionage films from the 1960's with Richard Burton or Michael Caine: very complex and depressing. It is redeemed however by having two important male leads, de Niro and Reno, who are marvelous, and its incredible and very scary car chases, and great European locales.

According to Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (, David Mamet "reportedly wrote most of the final" screenplay, although the official writing credits are J. D. Zeik and Richard Weisz. Weisz apparently was a pseudonym for Mamet. In his review of the movie, ( James Kendrick notes that "some 80 cars were wrecked or destroyed…and it's not hard to see how." Indeed, the car chases outdo the famous ones in "Bullitt" and "The French Connection."

Michael Lonsdale, who was superb as the detective in "The Day of The Jackal," was the villain the James Bond film "Moonraker," Jonathan Pryce was the villain in the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies," and Sean Bean played 006 in the James bond movie, "Goldeneye."

Frankenheimer is best known for his direction of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May," which are rated, respectively, 27th and 105th, in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films, in which this film is rated 187th.

The movie opens with an explanation that a Ronin was a Japanese Samurai whose lord had been killed and who therefore is shamed and will wander about as a gun for hire, or bandit, or mercenary. The presumption is that Deirdre's gang members are veterans of the Cold War and currently without "masters."

The film's novelty of having a beautiful woman be the working leader of the gang is interesting and works well, and when Sam falls for her it is not too surprising. This is a good example of an old-fashioned "B" movie brought up to date: mystery, confusion, McGuffins, a bit of romance, a lot of rough stuff and the dark side of human nature, and people in whom it is hard not to find interest.

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