Off the back of both Heat and Leon: The Professional, Robert De Niro and Jean Reno were both hot commodities for the action genre. Ronin, then, is the inevitable collaboration between the two, referring to both as titular Ronin, samurai warriors who had turned their back on those they needed to protect. They were rogues, and to some degree “ronin” sounds better than “hired gun”. Irish and Russian mobsters go head-to-head in Paris, fighting over a MacGuffin briefcase of contents unknown. Unlike the briefcase, the content within director John Frankenheimer’s antepenultimate action flick has all the consistencies and usual suspects of the genre.
With such a heavy ensemble, comprised of Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgård in supporting roles, it is intensely obvious what Ronin is. Old legends on and off the screen, De Niro and Frankenheimer are looking to cling to those final, golden years. De Niro in particular would go on to try and replicate the success of his action career with 15 Minutes and The Score, but none would hit the heights of Ronin. He was barrelling towards his sixties, and the leading man musk was slipping through his fingers. Fast. Ronin presents him the opportunity to portray a tough as nails star. He is channelling the vicious energy and rugged attires of Cape Fear, without the menacing antagonism. It is presented well enough, blurring the inevitable professionalism he can bring to the screen with his waning dream of providing a more Hollywood-minded genre piece.
What does not help with this dream, though, is the dialogue. Skarsgård bears the brunt of this. His dialogue is cheesy and his delivery is unfortunately ham-fisted. He has good reflexes, Sam (De Niro) discovers. His response? “They die hard”, with an unflinching face. Not a flicker of irony in the tone of his voice. It is delivered with conviction, and such a line will bring forth a flood of memories for the Bruce Willis-led classic. But Frankenheimer and scriptwriters David Mamet and J.D. Zeik believe they can sidestep this. We rarely find ourselves faced with a Mamet misfire, but they are not impossible. His craft here feels off-balance. There is no room for the biting criticisms found in Glengarry Glen Ross or the action-packed historical tones of The Untouchables. Instead, Ronin has Bean screaming about “swag” and “raspberry jam”, and it all comes across as dead on arrival.
Still, the action scenes are fun and sometimes rewarding. There will always be an indefinable appeal to seeing Bean, Reno and De Niro shoot their way through a deal gone wrong. Ensembles are often enough to make it through less-than-stellar scripts, and Ronin is no exception to such a train of thought. Here is a heist gone wrong, with two leads looking to set things right and swindle a bit of cash out of it all for their troubles. They are competent characters, the respect of the criminal underworld coming to a head when the going gets rough. It is a concept as old as time, and it is performed and presented well within Ronin, but not with extravagance or speed. Not with interest or intent, but with commonplace finality, dithering competence and placid heist caricatures. Still, at least De Niro lands himself a fine bit of action, and so too do the audience.