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Itís called Ronin, it has a star studded cast - and it is unusual. . . an action film that questions ethics and evaluates honour.† By a special correspondent.

It is producer Frank Mancuso Jr, who nails down just what it is that makes one of this yearís most talked-about films stand out so strongly from the crowd. "Movies with this amount of plot and character donít usually have this amount of action," says the producer, who counts among his credits such varied titles as He Said, She Said, Internal Affairs, Species and Hoodlum. "And movies with this amount of action donít have such a carefully built plot and characters."

Ronin unites veteran director John Frankenheimer with an ensemble cast of major stars from radically different backgrounds. There is Swedish actor Stellan SkarsgŚrd, unforgettable as the crippled oil-rig worker in Lars von Trierís sublime Breaking the Waves and as the maths professor who discovers Matt Damonís genius in Good Will Hunting; top French star Jean Reno, a Luc Besson regular (Subway, Nikita, The Professional) who has had roles in such major Hollywood movies as Mission: Impossible and, most recently, Godzilla; Jonathan Pryce, who has combined a Cannes award (for his portrayal of Lytton Strachey in Carrington) with major box-office outings like Evita (as Juan Peron) and Tomorrow Never Dies (in which he was the quintessential Bond villain).

Then there is rising British star Natascha McElhone, the discovery of Surviving Picasso, who has subsequently appeared in Marleen Gorrisí Mrs Dalloway and The Truman Show. And finally there is Robert De Niro, a well known actorÖ.

"he didnít want the movie to be: a testosterone-heavy action extravaganza"

Mancuso, very much a hands-on producer, has steered the project through several re-writes (including an uncredited dialogue polish by David Mamet, brought in at De Niroís suggestion). Indeed, it was Mancuso who first approached Frankenheimer to direct Ronin and was a regular (and, by all accounts, welcome) presence on the set.

So it is not surprising that he knew exactly what he didnít want the movie to be: a testosterone-heavy action extravaganza in which "the set pieces are designed in such a way that they donít feel real: they have to seem incredible in order to build up an attractive trailer and make people say ĎWow! I never saw anything like that! I want to see that movie!í"

Mancuso knew, of course, that Frankenheimer - not to mention De Niro and the other cast members - would never have signed up for the former kind of film. But, he says, "the challenge for us was to take real situations and make them both realistic and spectacular. The stunts in Ronin are less choreographed, but youíre right in the middle of the action. Iíve been watching a lot of movies lately, where everything looked too glamorised, too polished, like a Pepsi commercial, as opposed to this hyper-real, in-your-face, no-bullshit action movie which John and I have tried to do."

"Ronin is the first movie in 25 years that Frankenheimer has shot in France"

Ronin is the first movie in 25 years that Frankenheimer has shot in France, his second home, where he made such classics as The Train and The French Connection II. The latter (a rare case of the sequel being better than the original) made extremely effective use of the teeming, tumbledown architecture of Marseilles. Ironically, it will have been recalled to many minds by recent TV images of British soccer hooligans battling with French police along that same stretch of the cityís Old Port where Gene Hackmanís Popeye Doyle strained his heart and lungs to bursting-point with his epic pursuit of fleeing drug baron Fernando Rey.

Marseilles doesnít feature in Ronin, but Frankenheimerís new film does make memorable use of the even more picturesque old port, complete with its own hinterland of twisting streets, a couple of hundred miles along the Mediterranean coast at Nice.

And, while most directors his age (he celebrated his 67th birthday during the shoot) would have left the stunt work to a second-unit director, Frankenheimer headed straight off for Nice after the completion of principal photography in Paris to handle the sequences there.

"This is a movie that had to have one style," he insists, "and I have a very definite style. Sure, I would have enjoyed going back to California and relaxing, but there was nobody else who could do what I had in mind. It had to look a certain way, and I was the only person who knew how to do that."

"Taking its title from the Japanese word for a freelance samurai"

Taking its title from the Japanese word for a freelance samurai - a warrior who, either because of a breach of discipline or simply because circumstances have changed, no longer has a master and no longer belongs to a clan - Ronin is the tense, pared-down tale of six mercenaries (five men and one woman) who are hired to recover a mysterious briefcase for an unknown employer. Neither they nor we know what is in the briefcase or who their real employer is. But the job suits them: all but one have been forcibly retired from the murky, disciplined and all-consuming world of espionage after the end of the Cold War and, like Peckinpahís Wild Bunch, they find themselves adrift in a world to which they no longer seem to belong. As in Peckinpahís western, the results in Ronin are explosive.

"Being a warrior without a war," explains Mancuso, "a ronin creates wars or joins someone elseís. These are not wars of conscience or morality, but simply battles he engages in because of his skills.

"Our ronins emerged just after the Cold War. Their governments did not need to keep high-priced mercenaries on the payroll any more, and they no longer needed to dupe these individuals into thinking they were doing the country a big favour. So now, suddenly, these guys are out there - and they are not exactly going to work in a bank! They have to use their skills in a new and different way. They become men for hire."

The one exception to this rule is not a man at all: Deirdre (played by McElhone), a former IRA terrorist whose Ďwarí was still going on when the film went into production on November 3, 1997. But even that long and violent chapter of modern history had ended, following the signing of the Ulster peace accord, by the time the film completed principal photography on March 3, 1998.

"Itís a thriller, itís a suspense film and itís an action movie for adults," director John Frankenheimer

So, in a way in which Mancuso can hardly have anticipated when he first came across the script a couple of years ago, history has brought Deirdre into line with Sam (De Niro), Vincent (Reno), Gregor (SkarsgŚrd), Spence (British star Sean Bean, who played the terrorist in Patriot Games and was the Bond villain before Pryce in GoldenEye) and Larry, the driver (played by newcomer Skipp Sudduth, who previously worked with Frankenheimer on his acclaimed HBO biopic, George Wallace, which aired in the US in the spring of 1998).

So how does the veteran director himself see Ronin? "Itís a thriller, itís a suspense film and itís an action movie for adults," says Frankenheimer all-embracingly. "I think itís an intelligent movie. Itís not overly complicated, but it requires a degree of attention in order to fully enjoy it.

"A lot of things are left unsaid and I think thatís good, because I donít believe in long back-stories," continues the director, who has specialised in using action-movie situations to explore moral dilemmas in such films as The Train, Black Sunday and, above all, the classic Manchurian Candidate. "The film is all about behaviours. Our characters act in a certain way. The audience gets to know them through that and we don't need to explain everything in detail.

"This is a film about suspicion, mistrust and betrayal - a film about misconnections," he adds. "Somebody just doesnít show up where and when he was expected, and everything goes wrong.

"Itís also a film which questions our ethics"

"Itís also a film which questions our ethics: what does the word Ďhonourí mean? What does it mean to Ďdo oneís jobí? At the end, there are no victors, just two survivors, because these kind of stories never end triumphantly. But this is in no way a downbeat film: this is a real movie and, in real life, winning costs a lot. You have to pay a tremendous price for every victory."

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