John Frankenheimer's Ronin could lose one or two car chases (although not the last one, which sends most of les voitures de Paris hurtling toward the scrap heap). And the title has us thinking about Japanese monster movies. Otherwise, this may be the most satisfying action film of recent years, a throwback to such '60s and '70s pileups as Bullitt, The French Connection and Frankenheimer's own French Connection II. As with all action films, characterization takes a backseat to the hot pursuit of thrills and kills in Ronin, but the best action films have a way of turning that into a virtue--less is more. A lean, mean racing machine, Ronin makes such over-the-top action films as Con Air and Armageddon look like gas guzzlers--cinematic RVs. Robert De Niro is Sam, an ex-CIA agent who, because the Cold War's over and he needs the money, joins an ad hoc "Mission: Impossible"-like team that may or may not be funded by the IRA. The team's mission: Steal a strange-looking case before it can be sold to the Russian Mafia. That case, the contents of which finally seem beside the point, is the ultimate McGuffin--a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. For we not only don't know what's in it, we don't know who wants it or why. Nor do we know much about Sam's teammates or, for that matter, Sam. Among the movie's many achievements is reminding us how little we require in the way of plot. Sometimes, it's enough just to watch a group of professionals do its job.
Such movies, when they're about cops, are called policiers. Ronin, which is about robbers, is what I'd call a criminel. But, like the theft it's built around, it can hardly be called a perfect score. De Niro's Sam, in particular, seems almost too good at his job, so that Mission: Impossible devolves into Mission: Implausible. Sam, whose last name must be Urai, is descended from the Alain Delon character in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 masterpiece The Samurai. Delon's Jeff was a hitman without friends or family. De Niro's Sam is a man without a country, a spy left out in the cold. Ronin doesn't have The Samurai's stylish angst, its fanatical attention to detail, but it's a worthy successor--a well-paced pleasure ride that leaves us wishing the road would never end.