This seems to be the era for MacGuffins. The word, as you probably know, was actually invented by Alfred Hitchcock, when he was asked about the mysterious tune that the plot of ‘The Lady Vanishes’ is built around, but which doesn’t seem to have any actual relation to the action in the movie itself. He told a shaggy-dog story about a Scotsman whom everyone thinks did something, but then they find that it’s not MacGuffin after all. In the movies a MacGuffin is something that drives a movie’s plot, but has no intrinsic value of its own. The mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction is a classic MacGuffin.

And now comes ‘Ronin,’ which is a movie that’s nothing but a two-hour MacGuffin, where everybody wants a mysterious case but nobody knows what’s in it. Roger Ebert in his review calls it the valise that the ‘Pulp Fiction’ briefcase came in. Anyway, armed with a script co-written -- under a pseudonym --by the master of ambiguity David Mamet, the master of action films director John Frankenheimer really cranks it up this time, with a gang of assassins-for-hire tooling from one end of France to the other. His car chases are so good you wish Princess Di had had one of his stunt drivers handling her car on that fateful night.

A mysterious Irishwoman, played by Natascha McElhone, has brought this group together in Paris. Their job is to retrieve the MacGuffin, I mean the case, from some people who want to sell it to a group of Russians, though these days I’m not so sure the Russians could pay for it anyway. The group includes Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno, and they’re marvelous as smart and icy-cold workers. There’s a little talk of DeNiro being ex-CIA, but if he really were, the CIA would never have bungled as many jobs as they have. Maybe it’s better this way.

In some ways the film reminds you of Jules Dassin’s ‘Rififi,’ the classic story of a crime carefully planned and executed, but ‘Ronin’ is also concerned with double crosses, including double crosses of the double crosses. Frankenheimer keeps things moving very fast, but not so fast that you get confused. DeNiro has marvellous fun with a role that must have been a delight to play. He’s asked, "Did you ever kill anybody?" "I hurt somebody’s feelings once," he says. And there are a lot more lines like that, kind of dropped in like little prizes for the audience. Go see ‘Ronin,’ but don’t be confused, as the lady behind me was, when we cut to a panorama of a city on the Riviera, with the big title on the screen that says "Nice." She asked her friend, "What do they mean, nice?" Oh, well.

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