John Frankenheimer is back. Exact, profound, agile behind the lucid eye of the camera, this lonesome cinematic samurai brings back memories of things long forgotten. They're simple things like vulnerable heroes, an intelligent script, a suspense thriller whose characters are not upstaged by formidable action sequences, and a feeling of superb aggressiveness free from all Hollywood formulas.

The characters: Sam (Robert De Niro), an ex-CIA operative turned mercenary; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), an Eastern Bloc electronics specialist; Vincent (Jean Reno), the French coordinator; Spence (Sean Bean), the British weapons expert; Larry, the driver (Skipp Sudduth), and Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), the team's only contact with its client (Jonathan Pryce).

The mission: the retrieval of a suitcase whose contents are never revealed (see Pulp Fiction), but whose theft leads to an impressive body count and high-speed car chases filmed the old-fashioned way, without the usual digital interference.

The setting: Paris and Nice, musty warehouses, dimly lit bistros, luxurious hotels and, above all, the unbearable lightness of rain, the solitude, the doubts, the betrayals. Six strangers, one job. A briefcase, a woman, a traitor. The Brit: nervous, insecure, a liability.

The client: a cold-blooded killer. The plot: consumed by ambiguities, reluctant to explain itself, bitter. The action sequences: brutal, unusual in their lack of color, followed by silent, complicitous aerial shots of narrow streets and tall brick buildings. The car crashes: exhilarating, maddening in their rapid succession. "I've done Shakespeare; I've done Chekhov, and now I've done fear," says Jonathan Pryce.

Ronin is about solitary steppenwolves, violence, and political subterfuge, as much as it is about Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) and his return to style. Prisoners of private nightmares, Ronin's men suspect everyone. The actors behind the masks, however, trust their director completely.

The film starts with this quotation: "In feudal Japan, the warrior class of samurai were sworn to protect their liege lords with their lives. Those samurai whose liege was killed suffered a great shame, and they were forced to wander the land looking for work as hired swords or bandits. These masterless warriors were no longer referred to as samurai -- they were known by another name: such men were called Ronin."

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