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Review: 'Ronin' is pure adrenaline, served straight up

Web posted on: Friday, September 25, 1998 12:17:19 PM

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- Stylish thrillers like "Bullitt," "The French Connection" and John Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday" were immensely popular in the late 1960s and '70s. Now legendary director Frankenheimer once again explores the world of political treachery and ambiguous loyalties with "Ronin," a throwback to that early era in thrill films.

I've been very worried about Frankenheimer's directorial grip on reality ever since he helmed that impossible mess of a movie called "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer were clearly out of control, and perhaps out of their pea-picking minds. Where was the voice of reason? Where was the director?!

Paul Clinton reviews "Ronin" in "Paul's Pix"

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Theatrical preview: "Ronin"

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Still, I've been a long-time Frankenheimer fan. He's brought us such classics as "The Manchurian Candidate," "All Fall Down," "Seven Days In May" and "The Birdman of Alcatraz." He also recently won an Emmy for his direction of the TNT production of "George Wallace."

Back in control

I'm happy to report he's left the island and is back on track with his feature film career. He's joined forces with the very sane, and very talented Robert De Niro in making this action/thriller called "Ronin."

This movie is not really a "who done it," but more of a "do what, do it where and do it why?" kind of situation.

But first, you need a history lesson in order to understand the title. "Ronin" is the name given in feudal Japan to samurai warriors whose masters were killed. Suffering great shame since they failed to protect their leader, these men were forced to roam the land as hired killers and bandits. The name Ronin is now applied to all those out-of-work ex-spies and operatives for the CIA, KGB, and dozens of other spy factories downsized due to the untimely end of the Cold War.

De Niro plays off French counterpart

De Niro stars as Sam, a member of a motley crew of international out-of-work, ex-secret agents who are all hired by an Irish terrorist, played by Natascha McElhone.

French film star Jean Reno plays another ex-spy, Vincent, who is the coordinator of the group. Reno has always struck me as the French version of De Niro, so it's very interesting to see these two great actors go toe-to-toe. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard (the math professor in "Good Will Hunting") plays an electronics specialist and actors Skipp Suddeth and Sean Bean round out this cast of misfit spies who come in from the cold.

Their job is to steal a very mysterious and very well-protected briefcase. Who has it? We don't know. Who wants it? We don't know. What's in it? We don't know. The mission is to just get that damn case. Period. This very straightforward plot is interspersed with three sensational car chases and an ice show. Yes, an ice show. You have to see the movie.

"Ronin" features a very sparse storyline, which is great for an action film. The idea is to just get from point A to point B. Very simple. The rest is action, which is exactly how it should be. When an action film gets too complicated it can very easily become way too confusing. "Mission Impossible" is a case in point.

The script for "Ronin" is by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz. Weisz is actually a pseudonym used by playwright and screenwriter David Mamet, but he isn't trying to distance himself from this film. It's just that he never uses his name when the original idea isn't his, or when he isn't the sole writer for the project. Yet you can hear Mamet's distinctive rhythm in the world-weary dialogue uttered by De Niro's Sam.

Reno and De Niro are both great as the only men of honor in this den of thieves. Jonathan Pryce is also excellent as the sinister Seamus, a mysterious Irish terrorist.

Extreme car chases

But the real stars of this film are the car chases.

Shot on location in Paris, Nice and the south of France, this film is full of spectacular car chase scenes, scenes that are tailor-made for the director who set the standard back in 1966 with his movie "Grand Prix."

There is little, if any, computer wizardry here. These heart-pounding scenes were shot with real cars driven by stunt men, going up to 110 miles per hour through the streets of Paris and Nice.

De Niro is actually in the car at times. He looks terrified -- and I don't think he's acting. Eighty cars were destroyed during the filming of "Ronin." When the action moves to traffic tunnels in the heart of Paris, you can't help but think about Princess Diana. In fact, the film was being made in Paris when that tragic accident actually took place.

If you like action flicks, "Ronin" may just be for you. This is pure adrenaline served straight up, with a twist of good acting, and plot on the side.

"Ronin" is rated "R" for violence, and is 121 minutes long.

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