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Never Walk Into a Room You Don't Know How to Walk Out Of: Ronin

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Ronin is among the last great action thrillers. It is about intelligence, and, unlike many movies on the subject, is itself intelligent.

It's old school. They -- as many as 300 stunt drivers -- drove real cars down actual streets even as computer generated images (CGI) were becoming the norm for the illusions we watch. Go-fast scenes now are staged against a green screen in part or in whole. No matter how superb the actors in any future blockbuster, there will not be the same visceral effect as seeing a star stick his head out of a luxury car sunroof in order to aim a rocket launcher as vehicles speed through the French countryside. Those car crashes were as real as could be. The star, Robert DeNiro, looks visibly distressed in the tunnel chase; reportedly it's a stunt driver invisible to us in a vehicle equipped with a right-side steering wheel.

This movie belongs to a period. It is not dated, but it isn't modern either. In a scene where the protagonists are casing the joint, they pose as tourists who would like photographs of their honeymoon. They recruit a bystander to shoot with a film camera, a high-end Contax no less, not a digital model. (Contax ceased manufacturing shortly thereafter.)

Ronin features a MacGuffin as per Alfred Hitchcock, dialogue by David Mamet, direction by John Frankenheimer, and a restrained performance by DeNiro before he began to parody himself. (There was a dispute between the two writers, J.D. Zeik and Mamet, who is credited under a pseudonym.)

The Macguffin is a briefcase. DeNiro is among the mercenaries hired by a lass with "a charming Irish lilt" (Natascha McElhone). They are to be paid handsomely to recover said briefcase. Or more accurately, to steal it. A MacGuffin is a very important item, the exact nature of which is never disclosed satisfactorily, but which drives the plot such that the audience doesn't realize until too late they will not be offered an understanding of what's what, e.g., the letters of transit in Casablanca. Asked what's in the case, their handler answers truthfully enough that it's something worth paying them for.

The dialogue by Mamet opens in an understated manner. It is characteristically clipped. The opening scene is a Parisian cafe. DeNiro's character, Sam, walks in.

His preliminary concern is not auspicious. He needs to see a man about a dog. He declares his philosophy at the outset: "I never walk into a place I don't know how to walk out of."

What makes Mamet a genius is his knack for seeming naturalistic without being natural, to tell jokes without being jokey. On a second viewing, when the adrenaline rush is lessened and the appreciation for the art is enhanced, you can hear how his lines are hyperrealistic. In our mundane lives, nobody is as fast and as witty. Those who are funny expect to be applauded to the ruination of the humor.

This is among the last movies made by Frankenheimer. He did a later picture in the same vein, Reindeer Games, which is not as bad as the critics said it was -- and that's as good as can be said about the matter. Frankenheimer was responsible for numerous prior flicks that embodied the masculine virtue of driving beyond the speed limit, notably Grand Prix and French Connection II. He also helmed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the definitive paranoid thriller that preceded the genre.

Frankenheimer has a sure touch with the material. He dispenses with a show-off trying to talk shop about firearms, because there is no need for the details; but he has the vehicular expert specify the Audi line of automobiles fitted with nitrous oxide. A key ambush depends on dialogue escalating toward the deadly, in a confrontation over the color of the boathouse at Hereford (an English military base).

DeNiro shows wry humor. Sam is too deadpan to be ironic. His lines would be absurd without the panache. Accused of being scared, he responds, "Of course, I'm scared! You think I'm reluctant because I'm happy?"

Asked whether he had been tortured, he recalls succumbing to a grasshopper . . . Two parts gin, two parts brandy, one part creme de menthe.

Later, faced with supervising surgery on himself to remove a Teflon-coated bullet, he relates that he once removed a guy's appendix with a grapefruit spoon. That is what passes for male bonding in this genre.

Ronin is conventionally testosterone heavy. This is a show of men strutting about, heavily armed, to prove themselves -- whatever else might be occurring around them. At their meeting with people who will sell them their weapons, they announce, "Just because we're buying guns doesn't mean we didn't bring any."

The romance, if it can be called that, between DeNiro's Sam and McElhone's Deidre, has all the allure of high school dating: a kiss is enough to sustain the imagination.

There is a vague allusion to the 47 Ronin of Japanese myth. In another of those wonderful post-modern moves, the tale about samurai whose master is killed (to their shame) is explicated by a long-faced Frenchman (Michael Lonsdale), apparently a retired operative who is sure he will meet a deserved demise. "At the end of the day, we're likely to be punished for our kindnesses."

As a bonus, the Irish Republican Army and its internecine conflict appears, along with the Russian mafia, which apparently controls the ice capades, and the CIA as stalwart as any American patriot would wish for.

Ronin holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 68. It did, according to Box Office Mojo, only $42 million of business domestically. It makes every list of top cinematic car chase scenes.

Perhaps what distinguishes Ronin is that it is a story about a specific time and place. The verisimilitude is crucial. This is not meant to be abstract and universal. The plot is set about a generation ago, after the Cold War (the late unpleasantness) and before 9/11; it occurs in Paris, Nice, Arles, and on the winding roads between.

The individuals who come together -- played by Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard, and Skipp Sudduth -- have histories that are only gestured at, and they recognize they have limited futures. There is a surprise, but it is so subtle that a viewer might not quite comprehend what Sam is explaining about his refusal of an offer.

Whatever their agendas, however, the movie deceives us. It appears to offer the moral that those who work for the highest bidder prevail -- or, if they do not, are meant to be models for the rest of us. It would spoil the plot to say that is not so. (Although there are alternate final scenes on the DVD, the theatrical version has the melancholy appropriate to the earlier events.)

Ronin achieves, notwithstanding the sort of third act disappointment that affects all dramas that create a believable tension that must be brought to resolution, that timeless quality for which we can be thankful. It informs us that the only proper conclusion to such drama is that there can be no proper end.