This confusingly plotted, post-Cold War thriller attempts to provide a restrained antidote to 1996's headache-inducing Boy's Own adventure, Mission: Impossible. It covers pretty much the same ground, but is much less flashy than Cruise and De Palma's overblown cartoon epic, directed as it is by John Frankenheimer, the veteran responsible for classics like Seven Days In May and The Manchurian Candidate. Of course these were before he fell from grace and ended up wheeling Brando around The Island Of Doctor Moreau.
Ronin kicks off with a bold, 10-minute sequence in which a gun-toting De Niro scopes out a Paris bar as if he's planning to execute the clientele en masse. Fortunately for them, he's just checking out his potential team-mates. There follows a series of knife-edge character conflicts, which introduce each of the cagey, eternally mistrustful players, while slowly peeling back the layers on the real nature of their assignment.
In true Hitchcock McGuffin fashion, we never find out who the team's employers really are or what's in the much-coveted Pulp Fiction-style suitcase. Not that it matters: throughout the opening act, most of the international cast are convincingly edgy and the sparse, pared-to-the-bone dialogue (courtesy of David Mamet) creates a convincing undercurrent of lethal professionalism.
Unfortunately, the pay-off is nowhere near as good as the set-up, and Zeik and Mamet's script soon descends into throwaway crisp-packet material that can't help but undermine the initially promising performances. Only Stellan Skarsgård, as a murderous KGB techno-wizard, emerges unscathed, delivering a perfect study of ice-cold detachment which deserves a far better film than this.
De Niro starts out as the quietly menacing epitome of assured CIA professionalism but, burdened with the unenviable task of doling out increasingly large chunks of hokey plot exposition, begins to look terminally constipated. Jean Reno's well-worn assassin routine is always fun to watch, but the nervy Jonathan Pryce is laughably cast as a super-competent Irish assassin. Worst of all, sabre-rattling Sean Bean is annoyingly written off as the token shitey British agent (a greasy, unwashed coward whose only purpose in the script is to make De Niro look good).
Frankenheimer's refreshingly understated, grown-up approach to spy-smashing action almost rescues Ronin from the joke heap. A violent, botched heist segment and two frenzied, white-knuckle car chases work brilliantly as stand-alone sequences, but the absence of convincing plot (and the late addition of an embarrassing voice-over, which links the movie's climax with recent domestic headlines) creates a recipe for snickering laughter rather than edge-of-the-seat thrills.
While Frankenheimer's traditional action movie technique is a joy to behold in today's CG-saturated world of ridiculous stunts, the plot's lack of any real drama consigns Ronin to the Secret Service file marked "Don't bother".