By Leah Rozen
October 05, 1998 12:00 PM

Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Michael Lonsdale

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The major characters in Ronin, an impressively nervy thriller from veteran director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), all lack last names. And it’s a good bet that the first names they do use, including Sam, Gregor and Vincent, aren’t the ones originally inked on their birth certificates. These guys are all ex-operatives for the CIA, the KGB or whatever initials covert organizations went by in their native countries. Five of them, including De Niro, the only Yank in the group, are recruited to Paris by an Irishwoman (McElhone) who may be an IRA member. She hires them to steal a suitcase from a man identified only as “the target.” What’s in the case? It is one of the cooler conceits of Ronin that its characters don’t know the contents.

Not that these five shadowy types really care what is inside, who wants it or why. With the Cold War over and no big cause to serve, this crew is at loose ends. Hence the movie’s title: In feudal Japan “ronin” were ex-samurai warriors who, having disgraced themselves by allowing their masters to be killed, wandered the land seeking work as mercenaries. The movie would have us believe that its international band of causeless ex-spooks are contemporary ronin who, while still living by a leftover code of honor, roam the globe in search of the biggest paycheck.

Several factors felicitously lift Ronin well above the routine. First, the movie has sensational car chases (through Paris and Nice), the stomach-sinking likes of which moviegoers haven’t seen since The French Connection. Second, Ronin has a savvy, satisfyingly complex script—thanks primarily, one suspects, to a rewrite job by David Mamet (Wag the Dog and The Spanish Prisoner), who here uses the pseudonym Richard Weisz. And, finally, De’Niro gives an expertly controlled performance, hitting upon just the right mix of smart tough guy and cautious skeptic. (R)

Bottom Line: A thinking moviegoer’s thriller, this one has vroom with a view

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