As the opening credits of this film reveal, a rogue or disgraced samurai in Japan is known as a "ronin" which is a polite term for "mercenary." That knowledge sort of sets the tone for "Ronin" and in a way tells you everything you need to know. Sam (Robert De Niro) is part of a team of mercenaries that works to track down a mysterious package that seems to be almost more trouble than it's worth. When the deal goes bad (over and over again), he forms a sort of partnership with Vincent (Jean Reno) and together the pair pursue agents from both Russia and Ireland on a mission that becomes more than just a job and begins to embody their respective efforts for redemption.
I've caught bits and pieces of "Ronin" a few times over the years but it never gripped me enough to track it down and finish the thing out. This is a well respected film among people that I generally trust when it comes to this sort of thing. For me, however, "Ronin" is more frustrating than anything else. Somewhere in here is a great movie. Not a good movie, a GREAT movie. I don't know that De Niro has given a better performance since this debuted in 1998 and watching him on screen when he's really invested is such a treat. Reno, meanwhile, provides an outstanding partner for De Niro and the two display excellent chemistry. Some of the action sequences, particularly those involving car chases (of which there are many), are reminiscent of vintage Hollywood action, a throwback to the days of Steve McQueen but with a touch of modern splash. And the story, while possibly excessively twisted, is entertaining and engrossing.
On the flip side, however...good gracious, what a horrific directorial effort by the late John Frankenheimer. While some of the action is powerful and exhilarating, other elements are horribly outdated and cheesy. The violence and fighting is often comical and plays out like a bad 80s action movie mixed with a touch of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." There are plot jumps left and right which seriously hinders the momentum of the storyline which could have been used to build tension but instead just left me wanting so, so much more. More bothersome to me is the complete lack of common sense by some of these so-called black ops mercenaries and their adversaries. Over and over again these hardened soldiers make dumb move after dumb move. They do things that I, having no military or counter intelligence knowledge other than the viewing of eight seasons of "24," would NEVER do! It's embarrassing, really, to the characters that deserve better and should be a bit offensive to the intelligence of the viewer. I've got no problem with these types of stupid plot holes show up in, say, "The A-Team" which is obviously intended to be entertainment and entertainment only. But when you're making a hardcore, serious action film with hardcore, serious characters (which is what "Ronin" is supposed to be), these issues are darn near inexcusable. And it's a real shame that this junk gets in the way of an incredible movie.