It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The ronin of Japanese legend were samurai whose lords were killed. Left with no leader to dedicate their lives to, they roamed the countryside, free-lancers for hire. The same definition would apply to the rough band of killers who assemble in a Paris bistro at the beginning of John Frankenheimer's “Ronin.” They're an international crew. From America comes Sam (Robert De Niro), who the others think is ex-CIA. From France, Vincent (Jean Reno). From Russia, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), who may be ex-KGB and is a computer expert. From England, Spence (Sean Bean), a munitions and bomb man. And there's another American, Larry (Skipp Sudduth), who is supposed to be a great driver but is too much of a showboat, choosing as he does to replicate the Diana death chase (actually, that's just the movie's in-joke, if it's a joke at all).
The movie is essentially bereft of a plot. There's an explanation at the end, but it's arbitrary and unnecessary. “Ronin” is really about characters, locations and behavior. Consider the elaborate opening setup in which Sam, the De Niro character, reconnoiters the bistro before going in. We assume he's going to attack those inside, but actually he's only attending a meeting of all the men that has been called by an IRA paymistress named Deidre (Natascha McElhone). “Why did you go around to the back?” she asks him. “I never walk into a place I don't know how to walk out of,” says De Niro, who spends most of the rest of the movie walking into places he doesn't know how to walk out of.
Frankenheimer milks that opening for 10 minutes of pure cinema. Once De Niro gets inside, the opening is revealed as just an exercise, but in a film like this you stay in the present, and don't ask questions (like, why hold the meeting in a public place?).
The IRA has assembled these five men to get a briefcase. We never learn what is in the briefcase. It's the perfect McGuffin, as defined by Hitchcock (something everyone cares about, although it doesn't matter what it is). My guess: Inside this briefcase is the briefcase from “Pulp Fiction.” The briefcase is in the possession of “five to eight men,” Deidre tells them, and the ronin set out to track them to Cannes, Nice and other attractive locations (an obligatory encounter in an ancient Roman arena is not overlooked). Every encounter leads to a violent bloodbath and a high-speed chase, so that in the real world the headlines would be screaming about streets in flames and dozens dead--but in a thriller of course, to be dead is to be forgotten.