|'Spence (Sean Bean) is a walking Action film cliché, asking Sam (De Niro) at one point, 'have you ever killed anyone' and his departure is the signal that this sort of crap will not stand in an intelligent take on the genre.'|
In the three-year period, ending in 1998, Robert De Niro had starred in Ronin, Jackie Brown, Sleepers, Heat and Casino. In the three-year period ending in 2001 he had starred in Analyze This, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Meet The Parents and 15 Minutes. There's a very coherent argument for Ronin being the last film of De Niro's own personal Golden Age.
Directed by John Frankenheimer, who passed away in 2002, Ronin is one of the better examples of the type of late-1990s/early-2000s Action films during which every car that crashes explodes for no reason other than fender has touched fender. Cars in fact, whether exploding or not exploding, form the backbone of Ronin's action, with two chases in particular highlighting excellent work by a bevy of French stunt drivers, which regularly gets compared favourably to things like Bullitt.
Elsewhere, Frankenheimer seems to set out well aware of some of the clichés and problems that continue to blight his Action contemporaries. The first act 'getting the band together' structure is livened up by Spence (Sean Bean), who continues to subvert the genre throughout by refusing to show up late in the game as a pissed-off antagonist, bent on revenge for the early slights against him. Spence is a walking Action film cliché, asking Sam (De Niro) at one point, 'have you ever killed anyone' and his departure is the signal that this sort of crap will not stand in an intelligent take on the genre. His egotistical faking is revealed cleverly by screenwriters J.D. Zeik and David Mamet later on when, having stated that he can hold out indefinitely to torture (another clichéd action line), Sam successfully squeezes him with a throat grab and cup of coffee. In any other film the Spence character features entirely differently, and not for the better.
Not that every artistic decision works in a film operating in a genre where escaping all of the problems at once is night on impossible. The camera-work is occasionally so flawed it begins to break the boundaries of believability. Note that, as Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård) watches Sergi (Bernard Bloch) and friend through his binoculars, the 'binocular-cam' magically transports itself to street level, half a metre from Bloch's face. The narration at the finale is un-needed and De Niro's constant urging late on for someone to 'walk away' sounds like someone has forgotten to check the charge in his Energizers.
But Frankenheimer does emerge with a film that largely aspires artistically and satisfies in the entertainment stakes. De Niro is complemented by heavy acting hitters Jean Reno and Michael Lonsdale, and the latter in particular adds good material to the samurai theme, commenced in the staging of the first act, as the band are assembled on screen in loosely rank-order close-ups. The finale does get a bit confusing - as we enter territory very similar to Snake Eyes, from the same year - but the rewards are there in repeat views, which this more than merits.