Ronin Review

by David Sunga (zookeeper AT criticzoo DOT com)
October 2nd, 1998

RONIN (1998)

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4.0)
Key to rating system:
2.0 stars - Debatable
2.5 stars - Some people may like it
3.0 stars - I liked it
3.5 stars - I am biased in favor of the movie
4.0 stars - I felt the movie's impact personally or it stood out *********************************

Directed by: John Frankenheimer

Written by: J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard

Ingredients: Ex-CIA agent, crew of former spies on a mysterious mission
In the Japanese legend of THE 47 RONIN, the master of 47 samurai was killed by a rival nobleman. The 47 samurai, whose job was to serve and protect their master, were so disgraced that they went into hiding as beggars, thieves and assorted riff raff while plotting their counterattack. One day they stormed the rival's stronghold and killed their former master's enemy. Then, all 47 walked out to the courtyard and committed seppuku (ritual suicide) by hara kiri (gut cut).
RONIN's title refer to this ancient legend, and not to the 1990s modern Japanese meaning of Ronin (high school students who are in limbo because they aren't able to pass Japanese college entrance exams). In RONIN a motley crew of broke and aging ex-agents from the Cold War are compared to the Japanese ronin of legend, in that both are now masterless lethal servants.

The crew of money-starved ex-agents from the Cold War are randomly thrown together by an anonymous high paying client who gives them information and pays them through a mysterious Irish Republican Army lady (Natascha McElhone). They are not given any information other than that their mission is to attack a convoy of black cars in France and recover a briefcase. This of course leads to shootouts and car chases involving anonymous guys in sunglasses and betrayals by untrustworthy teammates. The main character Sam the American former CIA guy (Robert De Niro) teams up with Vincent, ex-agent from France, in order to recover the briefcase.

The main character Sam is always trying to figure out exactly who has mysteriously hired him, whom he's being hired to kill, and what's so special about the briefcase he's supposed to recover.

In the end, we do find out who the mysterious client is, but in the meantime a lot of small token witticisms are revealed about how to be an agent, and how to not ask questions, and how not to reveal too much to interrogators. Despite all the chases and gunplay, RONIN is not an action movie, but a kind of spy thriller explaining the character of these RONIN: how they act, how they react, and what makes them tick. In that respect, the contents of the briefcase and the identity of the briefcase owners are completely irrelevant and only illustrate the nature of this kind of work.

One interesting thing about RONIN is its Western interpretation of the 47 Ronin legend. In the Japanese version, the 47 Ronin committed seppuku to atone for their disgrace and dishonor in failing to protect their liege. Basically they were saying, "We failed to protect the master. We killed the bad guy, but that's still no excuse for our disgrace." In the RONIN movie version, however, a Frenchman suggests to Sam that that the 47 Ronin actually committed hara kiri because, like the Cold War spies, they found they no longer served a higher calling, and felt a kind of exaggerated wistfulness over loss of mission. It's a small point of East-West difference that in no way detracts from the entertainment value of this neat little thriller.

Reviewed by David Sunga
September 26, 1998

More on 'Ronin'...

Originally posted in the newsgroup. Copyright belongs to original author unless otherwise stated. We take no responsibilities nor do we endorse the contents of this review.