(director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: from original story by J.D. Zeik /Richard Weisz; cinematographer: Robert Fraisse; editor: Tony Gibbs; cast: Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natascha McElphone (Dierdre), Stellan Skarsgard (Gregor), Sean Bean (Spence), Skipp Sudduth (Larry), Michael Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre), Jonathan Pryce (Seamus), Katrina Witt (Natascha Kirilova); Runtime: 121; United Artists; 1998)

“But despite some attempts to make this a deeper than usual actioner, Frankenheimer’s film is just your typical actioner.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ronins are the samurais of old Japan who are dishonored because they failed to protect their master. They roamed the country as bandits and soldiers of fortune, but still remained loyal to their masters. This action film takes place in modern France, as a group of secretive older military types (CIA and KGB’ers and soldiers of fortune) are likened to the Ronins. They come together, ala Dirty Dozen, and meet this taciturn Irish bartender (Natascha) in this Parisian bar (Paris has a seedy look to it throughout the film, graffiti is everywhere). The lady barkeep tells them the minimum details of the plans. The real leader turns out to be Seamus (Pryce), who chooses to remain in the background. They aim to use these so-called Ronins to ambush a well-protected outfit who have in their possession a steel black case they want retrieved. The filmmaker chooses to not tell the Ronins or the audience what valuables are in the case only that both the Russians and their group (it is implied that they are IRA) are interested in getting it, and since they don’t have enough money to buy it they are going to steal it.

Sam (De Niro) is ex-CIA; he is in this caper for the money. He is a cool customer who never panics, and is a natural leader. Vincent (Reno) is the Frenchman who is Sam’s truest friend. Spence (Bean) is the edgy Irish weapon’s man. Larry (Skipp) is the experienced driver. Gregor (Stellan) is the computer expert and ex-KGB man. This multi-national crew runs into a series of betrayals — duplicity becomes the norm. There are outlandish car chases, seemingly trying to outdo other famous film car chases. Cars go the wrong way on highways, bystanders get gunned-down and cars’ crash. One car chase is reminiscent of the Paris tunnel where Princess Di died. The other is on the sinewy road Princess Grace had her fatality on in southern France. Mindless adventure takes hold, and the story becomes implausible. An effort was made to provide a crisp dialogue as Mamet was supposedly the Richard Weisz, who is mentioned in the credits as the story writer. It was wise of Mamet for not using his own name. Yet there is a sprinkling of good lines and humor here and there, enough to make the film mildly diverting; that is, if you are into watching this film for something else besides the action scenes.

But despite some attempts to make this a deeper than usual actioner, Frankenheimer’s film is just your typical actioner. What gives it a lift and a sense of being something more than the thin story it really is, is the beautiful camera work and moody colors of the cinematography; and, the superb acting by a very capable cast. Without De Niro’s presence this film would have been less than a run-of-the-mill action film, despite its excellent cinematography.

I also found that Pryce and Skarsgard stood out in their villain roles. And Katrina Witt, the Olympic skating medalist, was a welcome relief from all the hard action scenes. It was good to watch her perform with grace and beauty on skates. She played the Russian figure skater who gets shot while performing. It didn’t make sense; but, then again, nothing really made sense.

Frankenheimer has fallen off the precipice from his glory days of the ’60s and ’70s. I admired his Manchurian Candidate (62) and French Connection 11(75) for the raw power of their stories and their keen insights into his characters. Unfortunately, this film is not of the same caliber. It fails to make us think that what is taking place is anything but absurd. This once great filmmaker, in his prime, always seemed to provide us with both thoughtful and suspenseful films; while this film is at best, only mildly diverting.