Robert De Niro, Ronin

This new European-set chase thriller tells the convoluted story of a band of mercenaries led, more or less, by a scowling Robert De Niro. They are hired, by an employer they never meet, to locate and retrieve a certain metal suitcase, a mysterious and invaluable container that holds… well, it’s anyone’s guess what it holds. Advanced weaponry? Ultimate wealth? We’re as much in the dark as the mercenaries. For all its grim stabs at intrigue, its murky variations on “Mission: Impossible” and “Reservoir Dogs,” the real point of “Ronin” isn’t the assignment itself. It’s to send the characters on a wild-goose chase through the byways of southern France, a pursuit that unfolds mostly in rapidly buzzing foreign vehicles.

The chases in Ronin are among the most dynamic road clashes the movies have offered in some time. The film was directed by John Frankenheimer, the veteran Hollywood craftsman whose credits include “Grand Prix” and “French Connection II,” and you can tell that he’s trying, really trying, for that old existential feeling — to recapture that moment when thrillers, ratcheted into high gear by the techno-visual grit of the New Hollywood, suddenly felt more alive than ever. But a film such as the original “French Connection” didn’t simply thrive on movement and mood; it had a splendid, layered plot, and characters of gripping malevolence (including the film’s own hero). “Ronin” has tight-lipped underworld mannequins mouthing cryptic clichés. (Gallic mercenary Jean Reno: “Everyone’s your brother till the rent comes due.”) The movie gets a lot of mileage out of Elia Cmiral’s moody percussive score, and the mayhem can be shocking. It’s not just food stands that get mangled — so do pedestrians. What fails to surprise, or even hold the action together, is that damned suitcase, a MacGuffin too abstract to sustain involvement.

De Niro, as the shadowy agent­turned­daredevil thief for hire, does one of his livelier jobs playing a fearless, buttoned-down warrior. He’s supposed to be a rootless samurai, a modern version of the ronin who, in feudal Japan, wandered without masters, and he’s got the externals of a stone-hearted survivor down pat. He even generates some comedy during a scene in which he and Natascha McElhone, as the mission’s go- between, pose as snapshot-happy tourists in Nice. The other actors are as vivid as the shades-of-gray script, by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (the latter writing under the pseudonym Richard Weisz), allows. I wish Frankenheimer had done more with Stellan Skarsgård’s icy genius sociopath. “Ronin” is “well-crafted,” but it’s also empty — a joyless thrill ride. It even has a super-dumb skating-rink assassination climax. How does De Niro know the villains will be there? Because all Russians go to the ice show! In a movie like this one, speed itself starts out as excitement and ends as desperation — as a race out of the void.

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