STARRING: MATT DAMON, JOHN MALKOVICH
RONIN (15) DIRECTOR: JOHN FRANKENHEIMER
STARRING: ROBERT DE NERO 121 MINS
Berry patch. Mitt joint. Nut straight. Alligator blood. The feted attraction of the gambling movie Rounders is man of the moment, Matt Damon, yet the film's trump card is not so much what you see as what you hear: the sound of a private language batted crisply back and forth. Not since David Mamet's House of Games has a trickster's argot come so vigorously to life. Set in the New York poker underground, it stars Damon as Mike McDermott, a law student who dreams of being a Vegas hotshot, until one night he loses $30,000 tuition money in a game with bearded Russian mafioso, Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). As Mike reflects: "If you can't spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker." He just got suckered.
Chastened by this reverse, he takes a driver's job on the graveyard shift and tries to knuckle down to the career in law planned for him by his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol, in an insultingly underwritten part). But the return to town of his flaky poker confrere, Worm (Edward Norton), soon has Mike back at the table and itching for action. Together they take an unsuspecting bunch of trust fund stiffs to the cleaners, and suddenly it's just like old times again. Director John Dahl, and his cameraman Jean Yves Escoffier, lend their nocturnal prowls around the city a seductive burnish, and you can feel Mike's tired satisfaction as he rolls back home through the blue dawn with dollars wadded in his pocket.
So it's a little disappointing that the film slumps into such well-worn plot grooves. It turns out that Worm has been running up debts on Mike's tab as well as his own, and now needs $15,000 to get them out of hock with Teddy KGB. In the desperate run-up to the payment deadline, Mike's effort to bail them out is undone by Worm, who turns out to be a "mechanic" - a cardsharp - which gets them a savage beating from a roomful of cops (from which Damon emerges with those dazzling white teeth miraculously intact). You can see the poker equivalent of a shoot-out a mile off, and as Mike descends into the subterranean murk of Teddy KGB's lair all that's missing are the panpipes and twanging guitar of Leone's Dollar westerns. In terms of storytelling, Dahl has not yet managed to recover the slyness of Red Rock West or The Last Seduction.
On the other hand, the film has a good chance of prospering with a marquee name like Damon, who has, I'm told, a certain charm. On the question of his talent, this jury is still out. I couldn't stand Good Will Hunting, and his performance in Saving Private Ryan was hardly a stretch. The test will be seeing how he copes with the title role in Anthony Minghella's film of The Talented Mr Ripley, a genuinely difficult character of confused drives and longings. Then again, he deserves an Oscar here for keeping a straight face opposite John Malkovich, whose cod-Russian accent would have made a cat laugh. Must we maintain the ridiculous conspiracy that this man can act? In such company, Edward Norton doesn't have to steal the film; he walks off with it fair and square. His skinny livewire is a wonder to behold. This is an actor who doesn't have to show off to make an impression (take note, Malkovich), yet gives the film a jolt every time he's on screen.
In Ronin, John Frankenheimer's nifty action thriller, Robert De Niro reprises the tough, tense leader of the gang he played in Michael Mann's Heat, and even reuses the line about never walking into a place he can't instantly walk out of. Then he was a high-numbers bank robber; now he's an ex-CIA gun-for-hire named Sam, who hooks up in a Paris cafe with an international crew of freelance mercenaries - Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard and Skipp Sudduth. Their mission, as explained to them by young Irishwoman Deidre (Natascha McElhone), is the retrieval of a suitcase, the contents of which remain mysterious to the end. This isn't coyness, merely a refreshing decision on Frankenheimer's part to take an audience's imagination for granted.
Having assembled its cast, the film transports them to a hotel room in the French Riviera where they prepare for the swoop. The plan goes with a bang, or rather several large bangs - a motorcade of black limos blasted to smithereens, a town centre terrorised and a handful of locals killed in the crossfire. All in a day's work for these guys. But the suitcase disappears again, and the atmosphere becomes prickly with paranoia. "Whenever there is any doubt, there's no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you," says Sam. "Who taught you that?" someone asks. "I don't remember - that's the second thing."
Frankenheimer is an old hand in this territory - his 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, is the grandfather of conspiracy thrillers - and he understands how the simple image of men waiting for something to happen can be charged with tension.
He also uses the movie to revive what's generally thought a discredited device - the car chase. Not since Walter Hill's The Driver have clutch and pedal been plied so frenetically. I thought the film had shot its bolt after a lengthy chase around the streets of Nice; then it arrives back in Paris, and launches full-tilt into a much longer one, jumping lanes, slaloming through oncoming cars and teaching even Parisian drivers a few things about full-on automania. It's exhilarating while it lasts, though one suspects the thrill will quickly fade. I can't imagine Ronin, as a whole, lingering too long. Does this matter? Frankenheimer has done a workmanlike job within narrow limits, and exacted some good performances from his international crew - pretty much the same thing that Sam does here, and he only had to steal a suitcase.