Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro takes aim in super cool car-chase classic Ronin

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natascha McElhone (Dierdre), Stellan Skarsgård (Gregor), Sean Bean (Spence), Skipp Sudduth (Larry), Michael Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre), Jonathan Pryce (Seamus O’Rourke), Jan Triska (Dapper Gent), Féodor Atkine (Mikhi)

Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) are ex-intelligence operatives from the Cold War (or “the late unpleasantness”). Now working as mercenaries, they are hired by IRA operative Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a mysterious case. The operation becomes increasingly complex as trust is betrayed, new competitors emerge, and a stream of gun battles and car chases soon bursts out.

I don’t think there are enough words to say how much I love this film. I have seen it I honestly don’t know how many times. Some films just connect with you, or something about them so completely works for you that you can’t help but enjoy them. Ronin is quite simply one of my favourite ever films – others may poke at it, but to me I think this is a perfectly structured piece of film-making, a 1970s-style thriller produced in the 1990s, the last flourish of old-school, Cold War spy film-making. In fact, I genuinely think the further we move away from the bombastic 90s, the richer this film looks. It’s becoming less and less of a guilty pleasure and more and more of a pleasure.

First and foremost you have to talk about what Ronin is most famous for: its jaw dropping car chases. What’s particularly exciting about these is that everything you are seeing was done for real. There is barely a spot of trickery in this – they simply hired the best stunt men in the world, got hold of some cool looking cars, and let them go to town all over France.

Of course, watching cars going round and round in itself isn’t massively interesting: what makes it compelling in Ronin is the skilled story-telling. Not only do we always know what’s going on, but the characters are kept in the forefront (most of the actors’ terrified faces were real, as they tore round the streets of Paris for real at 90+ miles an hour). In addition to that, the editing and shooting of these scenes is simply superb. The film gets a perfect balance of sound effects and musical cues: the soundtrack of the final car chase is split 50/50 between revving engines and music. A combination of low angles (putting us practically on the front of the car) and medium and long shots keep the visuals of each chase fresh. You’d actually have to be without a pulse to not be gripped by these sequences. These are without a doubt the best car chases ever committed to screen.

But it’s not just about car chases. This is a brilliant mood piece, filmed in a drained out colour palate that makes the whole thing feel like the characters have been transplanted intact from the 1970s. Frankenheimer’s direction is crisp and cool, and he has an eye for an excellent shot. He also allows plenty of subtle character and mood building to counterpoint the action, as in the excellent, almost wordless, opening sequence following De Niro’s arrival at a café. Carefully he cases the joint while the others arrive, putting in place a possible escape route (we later discover) before heading in. Later, the film builds a moment of exquisite tension and excitement about a drawing on a board and the colour of a boat house. We even get a scene where De Niro guides some of the characters through performing surgery on him to remove a rogue bullet.

The whole film is packed full of excellent vignettes like this: I love the moment when De Niro pretends to have lost his nerve and carelessly knocks a coffee cup off a table to see how Skarsgard’s slightly sinister Gregor may respond (he catches it before it hits the ground and then immediately looks sheepish as if he has given something away). The film also sprinkles dark hints throughout of a wider world (“Where do I know you from?” “Vienna” “Of course…” an example of exposition-free dialogue that establishes a back story), while the characters’ backgrounds and their recruitment by “the man in the wheelchair” remain deliberately obscure.

It’s also one of the best Macguffin films you are going to see ever. What’s in the case? Who knows? Who cares? The film’s structure totally understands that it doesn’t matter to us what’s in the thing at all. It’s only important in that it matters to the characters: and that most of them are willing to go to any lengths to secure it (preferably for free).

The other major strength of the film is its cracking dialogue, the work of an uncredited David Mamet (allegedly pissed off that the Writer’s Guild of America declared he had to share billing). The dialogue is endlessly quotable, and deftly sketches out character: for instance, we understand immediately De Niro’s cool confidence and Bean’s blustering faux machismo from exchanges like this: 

Spence: You worried about saving your own skin?
Sam: Yeah I am. It covers my body.

That only scratches the surface of the film’s dialogue, which crackles – this exchange between Vincent and Sam sums up its wit, and lived-in quality:

In fact the film is full of cool lines like this that seem to carry a flavour of working in intelligence, and stick in the imagination (“The map is not the territory” or “Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution or you’re just part of the landscape”). The best moments sizzle with an effortless cool, with dialogue that you find yourself (or I do anyway) regularly dropping into everyday conversation. It also helps to slowly build relationships within the film, with Sam and Vincent’s dialogue quickly finding itself in sync, a clever little indicator of their building friendship.

The relationship between Sam and Vincent is in many ways the heart of the film – while other characters fall by the wayside, events ruthlessly exposing their weaknesses, it’s these two who form a close bond. Vincent may believe “Everyone’s your brother until the rent comes” but their friendship develops a real warmth and trust – they are the real romantic link in the film (despite a flirtation with Natasha McElhone’s steely IRA gun runner Dierdre).

All this content comes together brilliantly into a tightly contained and carefully paced thriller. It’s also strikingly well-acted in a tight, stripped down manner. This is probably the last engaged, “serious” role De Niro did before his career drifted into decades of self-parody. He gives Sam a brilliant lived-in quality, with a wry sense of humour. Jean Reno is equally well cast as the laconically cool Vincent, while Natasha McElhone is engaging and intriguing as Dierdre. Stellan Skarsgård is a stand-out as the ice-cool Gregor. Of the no-less than three Bond-baddy actors, Michael Lonsdale probably has the best part as a model-building fixer, though Sean Bean does decent work as twitchy poseur. Jonathan Pryce is, I have to say, not completely convincing as an IRA heavy, but does a decent job.

Okay I’ll concede the final reveal and resolution of the film’s plot is not the best moment (a particularly heavy-handed, plumbily voiced BBC radio voiceover explains much of the ending), but that’s a bump in the road of gripping, smart and old-school thriller. It’s accomplished in its filming, and its mood sizzles from the screen. The car chases are edge-of-your-seat gripping, and there is barely a false beat in acting or dialogue. The direction is full of character and has a brilliant eye for little details. Above all else, I really love this film – probably more than is healthy – and I have seen it a crazy number of times. I can’t imagine not enjoying watching it – and I don’t think I ever haven’t, even though I must know it frame-by-frame. Brilliant stuff!

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