Car chases used to be a lot more fun when there were a lot less of them. Back before audiences had the chance to gorge on a new one just about every week (are we all geared up for Lethal Weapon 5 yet?), the sight of ritzy automobiles pursuing each other at suicidal speeds, leaving great big heaping mounds of destruction in their wake, provided a kind of junk catharsis. The greatest car chases generate an emotional turbulence — a dirty rush of zoom poetry. Think of Sean Connery as Bond, grimacing with pleasure behind the wheel of his Aston Martin, or Gene Hackman in The French Connection, smashing through block after New York block in deranged pursuit of a sniper on a subway train. Or think of Mad Max and The Road Warrior, those demon spectacles of burnt-rubber apocalypse, or Speed, with its splendid relentlessness. The thrill of a car chase isn’t just the choreography and violence, the comic-book extravagance. It’s the sensation that you’re right there, in that car, living in full-throttle abandon between tire squeals of doom.
Ronin, the 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.
At one point, De Niro and a cohort tear through the dainty rues and alleyways of Nice, which seems tantamount to driving a Harley through the Louvre. At another, they negotiate the centrifugal curves of a mountainside highway, as De Niro, poking up through a sunroof, fires a bazooka with perfectly stoic, all-in-a-day’s-work aplomb — very Bond. Eventually, they take the ultimate plunge, driving onto a highway against traffic (a stunt brought to the screen most spectacularly by William Friedkin in 1985’s underrated To Live and Die in L.A.).
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 cliches. (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 agent-turned-daredevil 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 Skarsgard’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. B-