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John Frankenheimer’s return to directing since the disastrous The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) is many thrillers in one, most of them pretty good. An undiscriminating thriller audience will find Ronin more clever and thoughtful than the standard version, and Robert De Niro will take another inexplicable step toward critical canonization for playing the same tricky-outsider role with the same exhausting frowning grimace he’s been working for the past 15 years. But not everyone will go home happy, especially anyone who thought that the director of the ultimate Cold War explorations, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, might have something to say about the post-Cold War years in an equally artful, explosive, preconception-exploding fashion.

Ronin’s first half is cool and grim; Frankenheimer is a master at drawing the viewer into a complicated situation and taking his time to unspool its various aspects and reveal its purpose. It tracks the progress of an international heist viewed from all perspectives: the humane, the cultural (America vs. fractured Europe), the logistical, and the technical. In an atmosphere of tension and suspicion, the crew of strangers come together in a Paris bar. There’s Sam (De Niro), the enigmatic ex-CIA bigwig who seems to have the least stake in the operation; Vincent (Jean Reno), the nice Frenchman who’s free with his cigarettes; a cartoon Eastern Bloc materiel expert with little round glasses and a scary detachment toward the mission (Stellan Skarsgård, brilliantly, as usual, playing evil as banal as it comes); and Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), the beautiful Irish group leader who refuses to tell her crew what’s in the briefcase they’re hijacking, why they’re hijacking it, and for whom.

The conceit is in the title—ronin was the name given to samurai warriors who went rogue after the collapse of the shogun era. These post-Cold Warriors sell their specialties to the highest bidder as well; with no masters to serve, their agendas are purely personal. But, as Frankenheimer demonstrated powerfully in The Manchurian Candidate, personal agendas are political, for citizens, soldiers, and spies alike. The heist is fascinating to watch—the crew meticulously gathers information, draws and redraws its scheme, checks its material. The barrage of minutiae and side list of what-ifs are finely detailed, but they take place in a larger, more ominous informational vacuum—the principals can’t figure out each other. Ronin’s first half plots the progress of the heist and Sam’s rise to de facto leader of the troop, but the real action kicks in when the beautifully choreographed scheme goes awry. As each ronin is forced to defend his own skin and, by implication, his country, whatever impulses that led him there become his motivating factor—it still doesn’t matter what they were attempting to steal; now they need to know who they’ve been working with.

Frankenheimer could have taken the easy way out and killed off the saboteurs one at a time, unmasking their motives posthumously. But he keeps most of them in play, racing around pretty, bedraggled French towns and individually amassing posses to re-create in microcosm the international animus of the Cold War period from a viewpoint only minimally more in the dark than the original one. The atmosphere of paranoia is palpable, the spycraft so ingeniously laid out that even the audience mistrusts the film’s details—the lurking “tourist,” the shop sign suddenly flipped, the silver car innocently parked.

Ronin’s espionage plot is not that of John Le Carré and his cast of gentleman spies—here the players are hard, vicious, and heavily armed. As the slow, intimate first half gives way to the more explosive second, the ronins throw all sense of international loyalty to the wind and carom around Paris, Nice, and Arles in fast cars, chasing each other the wrong way down tunnels and along narrow cobblestone streets of the sleepy villages, and engaging in a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse game in the ancient stadium at Arles. The wan attempt to bring Deirdre and Sam into a lip-lock goes—thank goodness—nowhere, and as the tension escalates, so does the absurdity. Sam visits a mysterious recluse who may have some useful information—it will come as no surprise to fans of Frankenheimer’s sense of play that this gentlemen spends his time carving elaborate miniature scenes of samurai and postulating on the metaphoric value of his creations. (It will come as a surprise, and not a pleasant one, that during his stay there, Sam operates on himself using a hand mirror for guidance—no numbing booze for this cowboy. Perhaps only De Niro could have pulled off such a scene, but he doesn’t.)

Ronin argues that, whatever the current international climate, national identity depends on animus—as dangerous and expensive as espionage is, that’s what’s good about it. What’s wrong with it is that sometimes the bad guys come out on top. We must have better operatives, not necessarily more noble goals, to justify the manufactured and finally futile business of intelligence. Although the movie is intricate and compelling when assuming a sub-world of operatives unfettered by boilerplate national pride, it doesn’t trust this vision of the post-Cold War international scene. By the end, Ronin dissolves into a tricky, confusing, us-vs.-them action ride, where the audience is discouraged from admiring anyone but the do-right Americans. Ronin proposes to be about the unusual, fluid situation in which the world finds itself, but it could have taken place at any time during the 20th century. As an action flick, it’s state-of-the-art; as a reflection of political reality, it’s woefully old-fashioned.CP