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Ronin

IN SHORT: A great car chase in search of a story.

Ronin must've sounded great in the pitch session: A group of five mercenaries, strangers to each other, are teamed to steal a heavily guarded briefcase. They don't know what is in the case. They don't know who is transporting the case or why. They don't know who their employers are, or where all the money is coming from. Every question they ask is answered with a "you don't need to know" from the lips of a tight jawed Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). It's the ultimate mystery.

And Cranky is just fool enough to sit through it waiting for the revelation of who and why, which never comes.

Ronin, if you haven't picked it up from the publicity, is a Japanese term for Samurai warriors who are disgraced for failing to protect their Masters. They wandered Japan as mercenaries or thieves if they didn't have enough sense of honor to kill themselves for their failure. The modern day Ronin are ex-spies (CIA, KGB, etc.) who need the work and don't ask questions. Set in Paris, Nice and various countryside French towns, this action flick nicely utilizes the narrow roads for several intricately choreographed car chases leading to the capture of the briefcase. Betrayed from within, the movie becomes a search for answers as our heroes Sam (Robert DeNiro) and Vincent (Jean Reno) bond as teammates to recapture the case and discover the whys and wherefores of their assignment. It sounds like a good idea -- heck, it sounds like a low tech Mission Impossible -- but in between car chases, Ronin falls completely apart.

One of the most important lessons Cranky learned in screenwriting classes in film school was the anagram criticism HDTK? -- How Do They Know? If Cranky had proofed a copy of the screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz, big red HDTK's would have been all over the place. For the first hour, enough mystery is maintained that you think Ronin is leading you to a big revelation. The problem is that characters pop up from nowhere, deliver vital plot information (the source of which is never hinted at) and then vanish. There are continuing references to a man in a wheelchair, who never materializes. Team members whose actions become important to the story are about as developed as a dried up watermelon pit. One character is wrapped in high tech looking computer equipment, tracking the movements of the target through means badly explained -- it's something to do with a cell phone -- and technologically unknown. One character is established strongly enough that, when he disappears from the story, you know he's going to come back by the end. But he doesn't. There's more, but it would take much too much effort to get it down on paper. Ronin is a primo example of sloppy writing and it's not worth your time.

To illustrate: at one point one of the members of the team is wounded, a Teflon coated bullet having penetrated his body armor. Another teammate brings him to a house in the country, where a mystery man named Jean-Pierre has a full set of medical tools and surgical gear. Why? We don't know. We do discover that Jean-Perre does not know how to use this gear, as the wounded spy must give instruction as to how to conduct the necessary surgery. Cranky didn't believe it. The audience laughed at it. You'll find it a waste of time; just one among many.

Cranky would provide a list, as he did in the Armageddon review, of everything that caught his eye, but I was too damn busy trying to figure out a sense of what was going on. Who is Jean-Pierre, other than a friend of Vincent's? We never know. How does he find one Irish couple and a German in the midst of a metropolis like Paris? We never find out. There are Russians and Irishmen and men who vomit. Experienced spies walk into ambushes. Ice Skater Katarina Witt is assassinated. The French Post Office delivers a vital package. A romantic subplot between De Niro and McElhone doesn't exist in the script, yet plays a important part in the climax and epilog. Yecch.

Cranky asked at least a dozen people, on the way out of the theater, if they had any idea what Ronin was about. Not a single one did.

Everyone liked the car chases, though half the sample thought they ran on too long.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Ronin, he would have paid...

$3.00

Feh. A feeble attempt to explain what's really happened at the end of the flick is just that. Feeble.

The Cranky Critic® is a Registered Trademark of, and Copyright © 1998 by, Chuck Schwartz. All Rights Reserved.