Ronin takes the concept of the generic spy thriller to new heights. In the post-Cold War atmosphere, it doesn’t matter who the bad guys are (as long as they’re sufficiently bad), nor who the good guys are (as long as they’re sufficiently good). Ronin depicts a group of people with indeterminate motives working for unknown parties to achieve an obscure goal. It doesn’t really matter what the ends are…Ronin is primarily interested in the means used to get there. And, surprisingly, given how little is actually revealed, Ronin turns out to be an impressive thriller.
As we are informed in some clumsy prologue text: Ronin is the term used to describe masterless samurai…or in this case disfranchised cold warriors. Brought together as sort of a mercenary Mission: Impossible group, these renegade ex-CIA, ex-KGB, and ex-(insert spy agency here) agents are assigned an obscure but dangerous task: to retrieve the ultimate MacGuffin: a mysterious, and heavily guarded, case. What’s in the case? That information is on a need to know basis only. Besides, it’s unimportant…all that they (and we) need to know is that many people are willing to pay a high price (and kill an even higher number of people) to possess it.
Acting on behalf of the mysterious Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) draws together a diverse group of ex-spies to capture the case. Chief among them is Sam (Robert DeNiro), an experienced agent who is likely ex-CIA, and who has survived on his well-honed instincts. Vincent (Jean Reno) is an equipment man, with his fingers dipped into the black market. Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), East German ex-KGB, is an electronics expert, Larry (Skipp Suddeth) is the expert driver, and Spence (Sean Bean) is a roguish weaponry specialist.
Due to the secrecy involved, we never learn too many details about any of the gang…much less about their mission. This is a spy movie stripped to its barest essentials. There’s no fat here. You’ve got car chases, gun fights, swarms of double crosses and plenty of intrigue…all without the unnecessary complications of plot or characterization. But has some muscle been stripped away as well?
The film thrives on its heart-pounding action sequences, which mostly live up to their billing. However, some of the scenes are so intense that they border on parody. The casual slaughter of innocents is done by both good guys and bad, and seems to be mere punctuation to underscore the seriousness of all involved. But, at times, the film seems to draw from the well of excess once too often.
At least there are some good actors at play here…actors so charismatic that they don’t really need strong characters to hold our attention. DeNiro is simply magnetizing in his portrayal of a desperate ex-spy. Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgård are also impressive. Natascha McElhone is slightly disappointing, but that is mostly in comparison to the other great talent here.
Ronin is not a film that you will think upon for days afterward, but you’ll certainly have a good time while you’re watching it.