Rated R - Running time: 1:58 - Released 9/25/98

Back in the days of The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, and Once Upon A Time In America, I used to think Robert De Niro was one of the best actors alive. But that was before I realized that most of his career would be spent playing the same character. De Niro is very convincing in this type, but I wish he would branch out more often, as he did in films like Brazil, Awakenings, and Wag The Dog. I'll have to wait, though. John Frankenheimer's Ronin is yet another fine example of what a great job De Niro does playing his old standard: the streetwise thug.

De Niro's typecasting notwithstanding, Ronin, written by newcomer J.D. Zeik, is actually a very suspenseful, intelligent thriller, and another nice addition to director Frankenheimer's impressive catalogue.

"Ronin," we learn at the film's opening, are former Samurai warriors from ancient Japanese folklore, who have been dishonored by the murder of their master — the one whom they were sworn to protect. No longer honored with the term Samurai, they wandered the countryside, looking for work as mercenaries or sushi bar waiters. De Niro's character, Sam, is a modern-day example of one such type. A former cold-war CIA killer, out of luck in the present-day climate of U.S./Russian détente, he must find work as he can among other mutually antagonistic peoples. And he does so in Paris.

Sam meets a beautiful Irish woman named Dierdre (Natascha McElhone, last seen in The Truman Show), who hires him and several other high-priced hitmen to steal a metallic carrying case from some people who really don't want to part with it. No one but Dierdre and her mysterious boss (Jonathan Pryce) knows what's in the case, but since it's handcuffed to a guy and protected by about a dozen heavily armed goons, we assume it must be pretty important. Besides, someone (also unknown) is prepared to pay an outrageous sum for it.

One of the few people on the mission that Sam trusts is a fellow named Vincent (Jean Reno), though they have little idea how much they will be depending on each other's loyalty in the days to come. The allegiances in this group are traded around like baseball cards after one of the guys (Stellan Skarsgård) gets the case and doesn't want to share. After several long, fast car chases through French cities and lots of dead bodies, the group arrives at an ice skating venue in Arles, and we arrive at the climax. A cameo appearance is made at this time by Olympic skating star Katarina Witt, who plays Natacha Kirilova, the featured Russian skater at the huge arena.

Perhaps the most disappointing feature of this well-acted and -directed film is the unsatisfying ending. The whole plot seems to revolve around what's in the case, and when you hear that question answered, you may want your money back. But if you're interested in good action and good acting, and you're a fan of De Niro's tough guy persona, you'll not be disappointed. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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