AN UNPARALLELED COLLECTION of aquiline noses get together to run France into ruin. One part ‘The French Connection’, one part ‘The Italian Job’, and a couple parts take-your-pick of James Bond, ‘Ronin’ is no great genesis in its own right, but it does break from genre conventions enough to be worthwhile. It seems to begin as a team action flick, but we soon realize that Robert De Niro—who enjoys (and succeeds in) playing the most badass guy around—is our guardian and we his silent companion. As such we’re also party to all the American jingoism (it’s implied that a shadowy American presence is necessary to save Europe from itself) and teenage sexism (the film has exactly two women, one a setpiece and the other sullenly tolerant) that comes with it. A better reflection of this perspective is that all the foreign dialogue—predominantly French, but also Russian—goes untranslated. The tone, body language, and context are sufficient to instruct us of what goes on.
And in general, ‘Ronin’ relies upon this suggestion to carry its momentum more than explicit instruction. Precious little direction is given to the audience at all, in fact, on the back story of the characters, their motivations, their allegiances, and so on. The score is an occasional outlier here; despite large stretches of underbed silence, several stereotypical themes do pop up now and then to remind the audience that car chases are intence, and bittersweet endings are bittersweet. The suitcase that is central to the film’s plot is also a perfect representation of this approach, for it is as genuine a red herring as ever existed. Its contents are never known, nor even alluded to in any depth. A couple characters quibble about it early on, but eventually “The Case” becomes just the good excuse for some righteous car pileups, plenty of shootouts, and hair-raising chases throughout the cluttered streets of Nice. Admittedly some under-cranking is visible, but the duration and scope of the chase(s) are both still impressive.
The cast is purposeful but rarely excellent. Sean Bean continues his streak as a jittery supporting cast member who can’t make it through the entire film. De Niro is cagey but just likeable enough, and he steers us with an iron grip through a mirror-perspective scene of his self-directed operation following a bullet wound. Take that, ‘Prometheus’. Jean Reno is, per usual, a mysterious baddie with hidden talents but for once is empathetic and perhaps the most grounded lead character. Natascha McElhone is a little desultory but her character could hardly be otherwise, given how cheerlessly she was written. The real star here, however shoddily handled, is Stellan Skarsgård, the double- (or is it triple?) crossing techie of the group. A fellow who begins as your average spectacle-pushing, sweatervest-wearing, behind-the-scenes commentator turns into a sullen, slightly twitching sociopath who has no qualms about killing innocents in any given number. This highlights one of the films odd inconsistencies, in that some ‘bad’ characters (and there are many, from many factions) are uneasy about civilian deaths, but then in another scene everyone seems to have no qualms about running cars through cafes and unleashing automatic weapons in crowded city centers. Whatever makes for a good show….
The job that opens the film proves to be only the first of several critical episodes in which we’re treated to a panorama of the criminal underbelly. It’s eventually revealed that our primary target (Jonathan Pryce) is rogue IRA, but the rest of the vigilantes—the ronin—are nominally unaffiliated. The film alludes to this nominal connection thrice (twice too many times) and also bookends the film with a scrolled introduction and an unnecessary voiceover to help drive the point home, even after literally discussing ronin in the form of miniature models during one convalescent spell at a safe house. It’s a redundant stoop in an otherwise lean production.
What the film does well, though, for all its mystery, is provide a slightly broader perspective on what the life of an international gun-for-hire might be like. Many other films present their characters in a vacuum: they are all masters of their respective trades, but where did those skills come from? One might refer breezily back “to a job we did in the Balkans,” but they never seem to cross paths again with anyone they might have met before over their decades of defrauding. ‘Ronin’ draws in these outsiders—“I knew him in high school,” recurs as a deadpan bit of humor—and implies a community of hoodlums that lurks beneath the surface of society, almost as uneasy with each other as we might be with them. If only this simmering tension had been given more time to gestate, it could have made ‘Ronin’ a more complex investigation, instead of just a complicated adventure.