Boasting more crushed steel than Crash, John Frankenheimer’s Ronin is a slick, back-to-basics espionage thriller: Cold War nostalgia as an excuse for some deftly orchestrated fender benders. Instead of grafting an elaborate, transcontinental, us-versus-them premise onto the European political landscape (which Mission: Impossible, in its own preposterous way, attempted), the filmmakers simply boil the plot down to stock Bond-movie behavior and comically vague babble: a succession of double- and triple-crossing half-explained away by ominously whispered phrases like “the Russians,” “the Irish,” “the briefcase” (as silly and lazy as macguffins get), and “the man in the wheelchair.” The end result is significantly more enjoyable than all the summer’s concussive blockbusters put together.
Written by David Mamet (under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) and J.D. Zeik, Ronin is so single-mindedly old-timey that it eschews the modish safeguards of high-tech gadgetry and pomo knowingness. The shoot-outs and car chases get wearying over two hours, but even if Ronin is basically a procession of set pieces disguised as a movie, at least those set pieces are all snappily staged, however daunting the logistics.
The mission at the center of the film—to retrieve the aforementioned case—is far less consequential or interesting than the cosmopolitan Dirty Half-Dozen who’ve come together to pull it off. Assembled at the behest of a hard-nosed Irish lass (Natascha McElhone) are a cool Frenchman (Jean Reno), a brainy Eastern Bloc type (Stellan Skarsgard), a devious Brit (Sean Bean), a nondescript American (er, Skipp Sudduth), and a wisecracking American, played by Robert De Niro, and hence ringleader by default. It doesn’t matter who they are, what exactly they’re supposed to do, who hired them, and why. All that counts is that they’re soon racing along scenic, narrow European streets at impossibly high speeds, and crashing into, or shooting at, the Bad Guys, innocent bystanders, and each other.
De Niro, Reno, and Skarsgard don’t act in any real sense, but they’re poised, alert, and kind of cool to look at. Frankenheimer prioritizes atmospherics over pyrotechnics (the prevailing mood is vacuous Melville), though, giving new meaning to “tunnel vision,” the director builds up to a relentless, inevitably Diana-haunted pursuit through a Paris underpass, eventually plunging head-on into several lanes of heavy traffic. (He tops that with a sniper sequence so ridiculous it doesn’t echo as much as parody the climax of his Manchurian Candidate.) Ronin only really disappoints when it flirts with the smug, fake intricacy of, say, Mamet’s own Spanish Prisoner. This is an essentially meaningless movie, and pretending otherwise only detracts from its most appealing qualities.