For an action flick, Ronin comes with a high pedigree. Directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), it stars Robert De Niro and a host of European steely-eyed tough guys: Jean Reno (The Professional, Godzilla), Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves, Good Will Hunting), Sean Bean (Patriot Games). Because of these names, Ronin reeks of cool and class. It also reeks of too much money, not enough imagination, and plain boredom.
directed by John Frankenheimer
starring Robert De Niro
opens Friday at Meridian 16, others
Ronin wants to be one of those legendary caper movies where a team of highly skilled criminals pulls off (or almost pulls off) an impossible heist, like The Thomas Crown Affair, The Killing, or Bob le Flambeur. It's a bit like fantasy role playing: The cool efficiency of the professional crooks is meant to mirror the mastery of the filmmakers themselves. "The weapons expert," "the driver," and "the surveillance genius" find their equivalents in the cinematographer, the gaffer, and the best boy.
The plot is precisely generic: There's the assembly of the team. The team is prickly at first, but bonds after some bad apples are ejected. They prepare meticulously, demonstrating their unique talents. Then, at the height of the heist, something goes wrong. No one knows who's working for whom! Sprinkle car chases, gunfire, and explosions where needed.
This sort of thing works on faith; if you doubt everyone's supercoolness, the whole movie falls apart. Ronin's realistic tone tries to convince the audience it has the inside scoop on how guys like this really operate. Unfortunately, it doesn't show the actual business. When asked how he's going to get the weapons they need, Jean Reno replies with a Gallic wink and says, "I will find them." He might just as well be saying, "I can fly through the air thanks to blue kryptonite."
What we are shown is unimpressive: When smiling gun runners usher the gang into a tunnel full of shadowy nooks, only De Niro thinks it's a bad idea—he must be a genius! Skarsgard reveals his fast reflexes by catching a cup knocked off a table—the other day I did the same thing, without the benefit of KGB training. Then there are those little lapses of logic, like, why does Natascha McElhone let her long blond locks flow when they're about to go into a shootout? A tight bun would be less sexy, but a lot more sensible. And do hardened criminals really bond over cigarettes like bad girls in a high school lavatory?
No one in Ronin seems to care what they're doing. De Niro mouths his mediocre dialogue like he's getting a fat paycheck but can barely keep boredom at bay. Frankenheimer must have wanted to prove he could keep things under control, since his last movie was the indulgent, pretentious, and chaotic The Island of Dr. Moreau. But Dr. Moreau was also wildly entertaining: Marlon Brando wore an ice bucket on his head and played a piano duet with a miniature version of himself, while Val Kilmer spent about half the movie doing an uncanny Marlon Brando impression. Restraint isn't all it's cracked up to be; sometimes, a little excess goes a long way.