"You ever killed anybody?" tough-guy Sam, played by an only mildly menacing Robert De Niro, is asked by another professional criminal type during an early scene in "Ronin" His reply, delivered with an inscrutable smirk: "I hurt somebody's feelings once."
That dialogue, written by an uncredited David Mamet, contributes to what was intended as enigmatic character study in John Frankenheimer's uneven thriller about a blood-thirsty quest for possession of a mysterious silver case.
The veteran director, whose career has ranged from 1962's brilliant "The Manchurian Candidate" to the horrendous "The Island of Dr. Moreau" released in 1996, was hoping for international intrigue. Instead, he wound up with a rather routine string of high-speed car chases, convoluted plot contours and the kinds of highway explosions and gruesome daylight ambushes only seen on the big screen.
Frankenheimer, though, knows a thing or two about establishing a mood and creating a set-up. It's drizzling in a shadowy night-time Paris, and Sam passes gray-green gritty buildings before sidling up to a dilapidated bar for a quick drink. Several coded exchanges later, he exits the joint and hops into a waiting van with long, lean Irish beauty Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) and other strangers.
All unload at a nearby warehouse, one that's suitably dark and dank. Deidre gives instructions, and the American, French, German and English members of the team glare at one another ominously and take meaningful drags on cigarettes.
It's a rather predictable march toward solidarity, as the unit barely escapes annihilation in a money-for-guns exchange, and Sam gets all union on his new boss, demanding heftier salaries due to the danger and the scarcity of information provided about their assigned target. The rebellious American also demonstrates his insight and loyalty by identifying and forcing out a weak link.
The action next moves to the sunny South of France, where we get seaside vistas and even greater opportunities for revved-up RPMs and such feats as a rocket-launch during hot pursuit on a road that jumps from city to country and back again. Fruit carts are upset, pedestrians dive out of the way left and right, and bullets fly. For added color, Christmas Eve carolers, holding candles, sing in front of an ornate cathedral.
It's our team against the Russians, no longer a Communist threat but just as evil in their incarnation as newly minted mafiosos. Or is it? Is Deirdre worth pursuing as a love interest, or is she connected to Irish terrorists? Should Sam trust Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno), American Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and German-born Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård)?
Betrayals mount up, identities blur and Frankenheimer turns in a pair of nifty set pieces, centering on the performance of a Soviet ice-skater and a melee at an ancient public arena.
The filmmaker also inserts a segment at the home of an artist who paints miniatures, and describes to Sam the flawed majesty of the feudal Japanese warriors known as Ronin. It's a moment of mystical-mythical gobbledygook that doesn't deepen our understanding of any of the characters.
Stone-cold killers may outlast the competition, but they're still stone-cold killers.