Retro Film Review: Ronin (1998)

in #film2 months ago (edited)


To say that Hollywood didn't adapt well to the end of Cold War is an understatement. Almost whole decade was spent in often fruitless search for villains that could fill the emptiness left after the fall of Evil Empire. How lost Hollywood was in that search is best shown in Ronin, 1998 thriller directed by John Frankenheimer.

The title of the film is a reference to ancient Japanese samurais who were left to wander the land penniless after the death of their masters. The plot suggests that the end of Cold War left many professional soldiers, spies, assassins and mercenaries in the same situation. They are now forced to use their deadly skills not for their countries but for highest bidder. Deirdre (played by Natascha McElhone) is a woman with Irish accent who gathers group of five Cold War veterans for dangerous mission. Their job is to steal certain valuable package from the group of well-armed people and they must do it before the package is sold to the group of certain Russians. Nobody, not even Deirdre, knows what it is in the package, but it is obviously something very valuable to Deirdre's boss Seamus (played by Jonathan Pryce). After careful preparations, the team manages to steal the package but it turns out that some of its members had their own ideas of what to do with it.

In 1960s John Frankenheimer made few thrillers that would later become classics of the genre. In later decades Frankenheimer never managed to reach the same heights and in case of Ronin his talents looked misplaced. The reason for that could be found in poor screenplay by J.D. Zeick (script-doctored by David Mamet under pseudonym "Richard Weisz"). Bleak background of Cold War, which gave mystique and real life relevancy to the spy games and dramas depicted in Cold War thrillers (including Frankhenheimer's), is nowhere to be seen. In 1990s - decade marked by optimism, unquestionable American hegemony over the world, globalisation, prosperity and widespread belief in Fukuyama's "end of history" – it was difficult for audience to care about minor league players like arms smugglers, industrial spies, Russian mafia or Irish terrorists. Ronin works best when it pretends that its plot revolves around something mysterious and very important. The ending, when prosaic purpose of the events depicted in film is revealed, represents the most disappointing moment of the whole film.

Frankheimer tries to compensate script's lack of real life relevancy with good action scenes. Some of them are impressive (including the one inspired by the real life death of Princess Diana), but they represent only sections of film. Most of the time audience is forced to watch excellent and dependable actors like Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgård playing one-dimensional and uninteresting characters. Sean Bean is the only one who plays someone resembling real human being, but he disappears too early in the film. Probably the greatest waste of talent and charisma is the subplot involving figure skater played by Katarina Witt. Fans of former East German athlete would cringe at the arrogant and pointless way scriptwriters handled her character. Brief appearance of Michel Lonsdale would bring comparisons with Zinemman's The Day of the Jackal, thriller which only superficially resembles Ronin. Considering the talents and reputations involved, Frankenheimer's film, although watchable, represents huge disappointment.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on April 27th 2004)

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