Some of the lesser noir movies of the forties, tired examples of a once-flourishing genre, seemed to have little more on their minds than the angle of Dick Powell’s hat or the tilt of a torch singer’s shoulders in some disreputable after-hours club – style, perceived through a veil of shadows and cigarette smoke. In the same way, John Frankenheimer’s comeback film, Ronin, is devoted to the panache of tough-looking men in black who chase one another in fast cars and then retire to cafés, where they sit around grimly smoking. That’s really all the movie is about: action flourishes and stoical gestures. There is a plot of sorts: post-Cold War intelligence operatives from different countries join together to steal an aluminum case from other cast-off operatives – but the plot is remarkably obscure. In fact, it is indecipherable, and intentionally so, I am sure. The point is that there’s no point to the men’s activities, that they do what they do because they are professionals who enjoy one another’s habits, and therefore what really matters is a gun held at the right angle and a car rammed through narrow streets, endangering every baguette from Paris to Marseilles, while the driver sits calmly at the wheel, in stern repose. The movie is set in France, and everyone smokes, which may be an anachronism but somehow seems a necessary element in the movie’s atmosphere of bitter existential coolness. Any display of normal human emotion in this context is a sign of weakness: The one man among the operatives who gets excited and throws up after escaping an ambush is quickly expelled as unworthy of anyone’s company.
Many of us enjoy this sort of thing – the action-film hardness, the stiff, snobbish protocols of professionalism, and Ronin is fun for a while. An opening title tells us that the Ronin were unemployed samurai, wandering the land in shame after their master has been killed. As the team is assembled, we’re willing to be entertained. We’ve seen enough of these movies to know that the tough international cast is required by the tough realities of international box-office. From America, there’s Robert De Niro, streamlined in crewcut and black leather; from France, Jean Reno, with the great protruding nose and shark’s teeth. Stellan Skarsgård, rather mild-looking in glasses and suit, represents the Eastern-bloc countries, and there’s a willful Irish girl, Natascha McElhone, of the long, beautiful, and melancholy face. She hires the others, paying them well but not all that well. They have no idea whom they represent or what they are fighting for. Mystification is all.
The action begins: Ambushes and chases, and many shootouts, some of them staged, as in an Italian B-movie from 1964, at point-blank range, with anonymous gunmen falling over in pools of blood. In the chases, the men bash dozens of cars, cause trucks to tumble, and remorselessly knock over tables of fruits and vegetables (ah, the old fruits-and-vegetables scene). The police, of course, never spoil the fun, an omission that is routine in these movies, but I gave up on Ronin when Frankenheimer moved the chase into a tunnel in Paris bearing a striking resemblance to the one in which Princess Di’s limo crashed. Is this exploitation or simple insensitivity? Frankenheimer has had a peculiar, perhaps incoherent, career. He began, in the fifties, with earnest TV drama, then got into movies and made the scathing, masterly political satire The Manchurian Candidate and the exciting Seven Days in May, and then, after a European interlude, such thrillers as French Connection II and Black Sunday. After some years of obscurity, he moved back into television, and recently had a TNT triumph with George Wallace. He can be congratulated, I supposed, for not using computer-generated special effects in Ronin, but his professionalism has a weary, cynical, and retro feel to it.
Like a French action star from 1954, Robert De Niro gives an all but silent, wryly fatalistic performance. De Niro takes a bullet in the side and then, looking in a mirror, directs Reno in the surgical removal of the bullet before politely passing out. This is a pretty good joke on stoical cool, and there are a few others, but the movie’s haughty toughness makes no particular sense. The classic Ronin tales are about honor, and bonds cemented by shame, yet the men in Ronin routinely betray one another and work for cash. All we can tell is that Robert De Niro is the star, so he’s a good guy, and Jean Reno is loyal to him and him alone, so he must be a good guy, too. The rest is existential absurdity: The men perform violence because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Unfortunately, directors like Frankenheimer go on turning out action films because they, too, don’t know what else to do with themselves. Ronin is well-made, but it’s an act of connoisseurship for people who have given up on movies as an art form.