1998. Directed by John Frankenheimer.
One of directorial icon John Frankenheimer’s final films, Ronin is a supercharged action thriller that moonlights as a commentary on the plight of the ghosts of a post-cold war world. Featuring some of the most ambitious car chase sequences ever filmed, an uncanny amount of environmental control, and a suave ensemble playing off David Mamet’s script, Ronin delivers a wily mix of intelligent tradecraft and white knuckled set pieces.
A group of operatives come together to fulfill a contract for the IRA. Their mission is to obtain a case that is highly coveted throughout the intelligence community. Competing interests and fair weather alliances test the unit’s loyalties as high octane pursuits and fully automatic conflicts flood the crowded streets of sun washed French locales. Robert DeNiro stars as Sam, an ex-patriot CIA operator who teams with Jean Reno’s Vincent. Watching these two fierce talents bond is a thing of beauty. Mamet’s trademarked dialogue works as the glue, drawing each man into a fraternal cycle of comradery and violence that repeats itself throughout the terse narration. One of the film’s best scenes involves their characters sitting in a cafe pondering their next move. Mamet’s deliberate refusal to impart motivation or glimpses into the subconscious would fall flat with subpar talent, but Reno and DeNiro seize on the Spartan approach, slowly walking the viewer through their professionally trained thought process. This is foreshadowed during an intense and endlessly quotable scene in which the crew argues about how to conduct their mission.
They are supported by Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard, Natasha McElhone, and Jonathan Pryce. Skipp Sudduth has a role as the crew’s getaway driver and he performed almost all of his own driving. The chase sequences involved hundreds of stunt drivers and Frankenheimer supervised each of the complex scenes directly. Ronin is a prime example of how a director’s ability to not only grasp the concept, but to control it is essential. Mamet’s script deftly avoids explaining the McGuffin of the case, leaving only a world of characters and action. While the cast is able to engross with their shady underworld tactics, it is the action, more specifically the chases that complete the picture. Filmed on location across France, Ronin features a Big and Little Dipper pairing of automotive mayhem. The first involves a heist, in which the team is positioned throughout the target’s route waiting to ambush. Robert Fraisse’s color-drained cinematography captures the chase with a frenetic rhythm made possible by quick-fire editing and the use of handheld cameras, giving the events a sense of urgency while keeping the material pleasantly in the vein of the 70’s classics which inspired it.
The crown jewel involves a chase against the flow of traffic, with the actual cast members in the vehicles. Sound editor Steven Livingston recorded each individual car used in the sequences to ensure that they would sound authentic in the final version. Sound, both the edited effects and Elia Cmiral’s pulsing score are essential ingredients in Ronin’s rubber banding cadence of flashing lights and gunfire, in between which lies pockets of rigorous world and character building. This is an actor’s action film, in which the shallow plot becomes an inconvenience rather than a force of coherence. Within seconds, after the film’s methodical first scene we all know why we’re here. The magic is that Ronin not only delivers with respect to jaw dropping pursuits and 70’s chic gunplay, it has a non-handholding sense of respect for the viewer which makes its rogue protagonists even more endearing.
Available now for digital rental, Ronin is a slick piece of film making and a surprisingly smart action film. While its lack of a traditional pay off may underwhelm some, its vintage aesthetics, outstanding performances, and adrenaline fueled chase sequences are more than enough to propel this film into the upper echelons of the genre.