People often describe Ronin as “the car chase movie.” Yes, it has great car chases. It probably has the best car chases ever committed to celluloid. But to only remember it for that reason is to do the rest of the film a major disservice. Here’s why it remains one of the best action movies ever made.
Ronin isn’t famed director John Frankenheimer’s best film. That distinction probably goes to The Manchurian Candidate or The Birdman of Alcatraz. In spite of this, Ronin — which came out just four years before Frankenheimer’s death at age 72 — feels like the veteran director’s way of dropping the mic, to borrow a phrase we use today, on the entire action genre. Seventeen years later, in many ways Ronin has no peers.
Ronin’s plot unfolds in a slow burn. A group of men, unknown to each other, are assembled in Paris to execute a mysterious heist. They know little to nothing about their employer, the contents of the briefcase they’re targeting, or what opposition they will face.
Alliances are formed and tested, double-crosses are made, fraudsters are exposed and the mercenary team fights to stay alive long enough to get paid.
Leading that charge is Robert DeNiro’s Sam, an ex-CIA man who says he’s doing the heist because he just needs the money. But is he really who he says he is? Like director Frankenheimer, Ronin is hardly DeNiro’s best film outing, but it’s impossible to imagine the movie with someone else. At 55 years old during filming, DeNiro seems like an odd choice for an action star at that stage of his career. But Sam is an unusual protagonist. He’s less of a rough-and-tumble gunslinger and more of a thinker; a calculating, seasoned field operator who has survived a long time in a very dangerous career because he’s careful almost to a fault.
Backing him up — or not — are Natascha McElhone’s Deirdre, the IRA operative who hired the crew; Sean “Winter Is Coming” Bean as a hotshot supposed ex-SAS soldier whose cover gets blown in one of the movie’s most famous scenes (“What color is the boathouse at Hereford?”); Stellan Skarsgård as Gregor, a ruthless former KGB agent who is first to betray the team; and French tough guy actor Jean Reno as the cool-headed Vincent, with whom Sam forms a genuine but fleeting friendship during the course of the heist and its bloody aftermath.
In the end Sam is revealed not to be a wandering masterless ronin at all but a samurai, a man still in the employ of the CIA and in pursuit of Deirdre’s disgraced IRA terrorist boss. It ends, as these things often do, with much gunfire.
Summing it up that way makes it sound like a run-of-the-mill action flick, but with Ronin the devil is in the details.
You have to mention the cars when you talk about Ronin. You simply have to. I think the film helped establish the archetype of the big, overpowered German performance sedan, in the minds of the public at large if not the car enthusiasts who were already devoted to them.
There’s the famous nitrous-boosted Audi S8, the E34 BMW 5 Series that Deirdre pilots in the centerpiece chase, and my personal favorite, the massively-engined Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9. It’s a brutal Teutonic tank of a car that previewed the insane AMG sedans that would follow in decades to come. There’s also legions of faceless black Peugeots and Citroëns that get trashed duking it out with the Germans.
Frankenheimer’s car guy credentials were unassailable. He was a huge racing fan, directed 1966’s Grand Prix, owned many fast rides of his own and laid claim to a terrific miniature car collection. He knew what he he was doing when he picked the cars and he knew how to shoot a chase scene.
Famously, Frankenheimer eschewed the use of special effects to shoot his chase scenes, opting to shoot them with dozens of real cars, nearly 150 stunt drivers and the actual streets of Paris. The chases feel real because they’re as real as they get. (Sorry, Bullitt, but this movie has you beat, and unlike you it has an actual story away from the chases.)
I read somewhere once — and for the life of me I can’t remember where and I can’t find it now, so if you know what I mean please point it out in the comments — that Frankenheimer’s chase scenes are notable for the way he carefully scripted not just the pursuit, but also the chaos around it. In other movies’ chase scenes, outside elements like uninvolved motorists crashing into one another to avoid the heroes and villains, secondary explosions and property damage are thrown into the mix merely to liven up the visuals.
But Ronin’s chase scenes are full of a more organic form of chaos. Oncoming traffic, drivers in roundabouts, overturned freight trucks and massive pile-ups all figure into, and result from, the film’s pursuits. Everything’s part of a system in Frankenheimer’s chases, a larger whole. The consequences are visceral, terrifying, and feel real in a way few other movies can match.
Its violence outside of the cars is equally jarring. Ronin has a shockingly civilian high body count — bystanders in cafes get blown away, pedestrians get trampled, innocent pawns are willingly sacrificed with little regard, and food stands are destroyed. So many food stands get destroyed in this movie.
Ronin has none of the sanitized, city-gets-blown-up-but-whatever action that pervades modern films, especially superhero films. More than that, the violence doesn’t glorify violence. How can it when the action gets so ugly, the heroes so unheroic? Nice and Paris routinely pay the price for this heist that increasingly goes south.
Ronin is not a perfect film. The shootout ending at the skating rink after the last climactic car chase is a wholly unnecessary way to resolve matters that could have been resolved more effectively a half-hour earlier. The romantic subplot between Sam and Deirdre, such as it is, feels decidedly tacked on. As some critics said at the time, despite its intriguing plot and well-crafted action, Ronin is ultimately kind of cold and empty-feeling, leaving the viewer without some greater truth or meaning in the end.
Still, it stands the test of time exceedingly well. Its technical prowess, strong direction, gifted cast, winding story and amazing machinery elevate it beyond what could have easily been another forgettable ‘90s action romp.
And it’s done well enough that it can still put modern action movies to shame.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.