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David and Margaret disagree on this '90s heist film. Decide for yourself Wednesday on SBS Viceland.

Five freelance covert operatives are brought together in Paris and briefed by Irish revolutionary Deirdre, Natasha McElhone, on their task - to retrieve a mysterious, very well guarded briefcase. The five consist of Sam, Robert De Niro, who is ex-CIA, Vincent, Jean Reno, the French co-ordinator Gregor, Stellan Skarsgard, and ex-KGB electronics whiz, Larry, Skipp Sudduth, an expert with fast cars, and Spence, Sean Bean, a weapons expert. Things very soon go wrong... John Frankenheimer`s high reputation in the '60s (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days In May, Seconds) has been greatly diminished in recent years, though his American TV work, which I haven't seen, is said to be excellent.

Ronin is a terrific return to form. The scenes which establish the principal characters are impressively staged and reminiscent of the work of French thriller director Jean-Pierre Melville (whose film Le Samourai also explicitly evoked the code of honour of medieval Japanese warriors as Ronin does). After the very edgy opening scenes, the action opens out and Frankenheimer stages two brilliant car chases - among the best scenes of their type in quite a while. He also makes evocative use of interesting locations - like the ancient city of Arles. There's a lot of Hitchcock in this film: the mysterious briefcase is a typically Hitchcockian `MacGuffin`. Hitchcock, too, liked to set his action scenes against spectacular backdrops; and the climax, set during an ice skating performance, is not only pure Hitchcock, but it also harks back to Frankenheimer`s The Manchurian Candidate.

The politics are a bit murky (IRA splinter groups are obviously the stock villains of the '90s), and it's a pity Sean Bean is dumped so soon. But otherwise the performances are uniformly excellent, the suspense and action are beautifully maintained, and Ronin compares favourably with Enemy Of The State as a top contemporary thriller. Great scenes: The wary opening `get together`; the sequence on the bank of the Seine at night; the car chases; the sequence in the arena at Arles; the sequence with Michael Lonsdale in which De Niro supervises the removal of a bullet from his own back; the climax.

Margaret`s Comments: The one thing you can say about Frankenheimer is that he is a very stylish director. But all style and little substance can be a tiring thing, and as with one of my least favourite Frankenheimer films, Grand Prix, Ronin has great acting, terrific direction of complicated scenes, but not a lot to involve me. It makes you wonder just how much at the mercy of a good screenplay most good directors are. This was written by a first-timer J.D.Zeik, with reportedly, the wittier dialogue provided by David Mamet.

If you look back at Frankenheimer`s best films, Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Seconds, they were based on really solid books and had really solid screenwriters attached. So while Ronin is full of style, it ultimately ends up a tedious experience because it doesn't know where to go with all the good things it`s set up.

 

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MA15+
2 hours 2 min

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