They first meet in an out-of-the-way pub, late at night, during a rain shower. The perfect setting for a little intrigue. They’re nameless at first, but hey, isn’t that Robert De Niro? Yeah, and the woman behind the bar, wasn’t she Truman’s fantasy in “The Truman Show?” That guy sitting at the bar? Didn’t he double-cross Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible?” And speaking of double- crossing, isn’t that guy in the booth the same person who tripped up Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games?”

The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. In “Ronin,” director John Frankenheimer wisely casts familiar faces to flesh out his thriller about a crack team of professionals hired to retrieve a silver case.

This is important because Frankenheimer and writers J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz waste no time kicking the film into high gear. Before the film is over, we’ll know about these characters, but it’s important for us to immediately identify with them.

“Ronin” looks and plays like one of those great 1970’s detective thrillers. It’s tough, it’s gritty, and it doesn’t rely on process shots or special effects to tell its story. What you see is what you get, and you get an eyeful.

Despite some clumsy plot points, I really liked “Ronin.” It reminded me of Frankenheimer’s “The French Connection II,” which like “Ronin,” takes place in France, and deals with a relentless pursuit.

As the film opens, the team meets in one of those great film noir abandoned warehouses, where leader Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) clues them in on the job. The international crew has been assembled to retrieve a silver briefcase. Like us, that’s all they know. In true Hitchcock fashion, it’s not what’s inside the briefcase that’s important. It’s the “McGuffin.”

De Niro is excellent as Sam, a no-nonsense ex-CIA agent now working as a gun for hire. You just know that if things go wrong, Sam will be the one to take charge. All great teams need a coordinator (think of Radar on “M*A*S*H”), and Vincent (Jean Reno) is one of the best. Cars, guns, clothes? He can take care of it.

Spence (Sean Bean) is the English weapons expert, charged with securing the necessary firepower. Larry (Skipp Sudduth) the expert driver, and Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) the electronics expert. They’re all working for an anonymous source, sort of like “Mission: Impossible” meets “Magnum P.I.”

The team goes to work immediately, laying out an elaborate plan that involves daring undercover work and precision driving. It’s during these moments that the writers take a little time to introduce the characters and their causes. After all, what kind of men would take such a dangerous job for only $5,000 a week plus expenses?

The director and the writers do a splendid job of delivering this expository dialogue without dragging out the film. Instead, it’s non-stop thrills. The team manages to pull off the job, but not before one of their own double-crosses them. At this point, the only tangible is that Sam is the only person you can trust, and even then, he seems to be hiding something.

“Ronin” features some hair-raising chase sequences that turn the small, cobbled streets of France into demolition derby. Catch your breath and hold on for dear life, because these scenes are truly spectacular. They’re also questionable when you consider how many innocent people probably got killed so these guys could complete their mission. The driving and stunt team deserve a standing ovation.

Frankenheimer has always been great with actors, and “Ronin” is no different. Every performance shines. De Niro is memorable as the middle-aged former agent who just wants to work. McElhone is as mysterious as she is beautiful. You immediately sense an attraction between Sam and Deirdre. Jean Reno, as always, is excellent as a man with a sense of honor.

Even though the film goes on ten minutes too long, and features a couple of clumsy moments, I still highly recommend “Ronin.” It’s thrill-a-minute escapist entertainment that will leave you breathless.



Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Skipp Sudduth, Feodor Atkine, Michael Lonsdale in a film directed by John Frankenheimer. Rated R. 121 minutes.


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