Jean Reno in Ronin (1998)

Ronin [1998] A group of modern day Ronin is formed to steal a briefcase.

A plot in service of action and tension - Natascha McElhone’s Deirdre assembles a team of mercenaries from around the world consisting of Robert De Niro’s Sam, Jean Reno’s Vincent, Stellan Skarsgard’s Gregor, Sean Bean’s Spence, and Skipp Sudduth’s Larry. The plot is quite simple despite the film’s attempts to make it appear more complicated. Ronin boils down to a MacGuffin hunt. This isn’t a bad thing as John Frankenheimer’s direction keeps things tense and grounded and there is some really interesting character work being portrayed by the talented cast. Where the character work falters is in some of the interpersonal dynamics between characters which feels a little flat at times.

An action classic - The main selling point of Ronin is the action, more specifically the car chases which have stood the test of time and are often regarded amongst the best chase sequences ever shot. Ronin has two massive car chases lasting for several minutes each. The first is an incredible spectacle and the culmination of all the methodical prep work we’ve watched the team conducting up until that point. The second chase manages to top the first in truly impressive fashion. The chases are full of excellent stunt work, precision driving, spectacular crashes, great use of real locations, and, top it all off, are wonderfully shot, clean and clear. The chase scenes have a heavy sense of realism to them. There are moments in the final car chase that truly feel like accidents, but they completely match continuity and fit within the flow of the scene so whether these moments are pre-planned or incorporated accidents, they don’t distract from the intensity and immersion of the sequence. Frankenheimer’s experience as a racecar driver, his dedication to realism, and his decision to refrain from digital effects make the car chases in Ronin some of the best in action cinema, special credit needs to be paid to stunt coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez.

Not everything works 100% - De Niro’s character Sam is thoroughly established as extremely careful. He plans meticulously, gathers as much information ahead of time as he can, and doesn’t put himself into a situation that he doesn’t have a way out of. This is a cool trait which is his defining characteristic, and De Niro plays the role to perfection. The problem is that there are a few moments that run contrary to his extremely careful nature. A small example being in the opening scene where De Niro hides a gun behind some crates outside the bar before entering and meeting his new associates. Hiding a firearm, just in case, perfectly fits his character, but the way he hides it goes against his nature in two small but distracting ways. First, he draws the firearm before moving the crates, and second, he holds it in his outside hand facing the street as opposed to his hand facing the wall. Usually something this small would be negligible, but this type of thing really stood out to me since Ronin made realism and meticulous details a priority throughout most of the film. Another Moment that seems to go against Sam’s nature is the intel gathering scene at the hotel. The idea for the scene perfectly reinforces this careful characteristic, it involves him and Deirdre posing as husband and wife and having their photo taken with their targets in the background. My issue with the scene is that it involves a variable that I don’t believe the character would leave unaccounted for. In order to have their photos taken, Sam asks a stranger to take the photos which opens up a whole world of potential problems, and there is no reason why the one taking the photos couldn’t be another member of their team. Vincent could have easily been planted in the hotel lobby for them to pretend to ask for their photo taken, minimizing the level of risk/mistake.

Other issues - I don’t particularly buy the romance angle of the film. Deirdre and Sam don’t really have any chemistry or much in the way of meaningful exchanges and the romance feels like it’s happening just because the plot calls for it. I think the creative team was at least somewhat aware of this as the film’s unused alternate ending pushed the romance angle a bit harder.

The reveals that transpire on a character level are a bit too transparent - The predictability in the characters extends into the plot a bit as well which is problematic for a film that is meant to be full of twists and turns. The script isn’t great, much of what works well in the film comes down to direction and execution. The middling plot is a bit surprising given that David Mamet is one of the film’s two writers, though he is credited under the pseudonym Richard Weisz which is a bit telling. Ronin looks to be his only screenwriting credit under a pseudonym. The film’s other writer, J.D. Zeik has the sole story credit and if I had to guess, most of Mamet’s influence is probably on the dialogue which is in fact quite good, and probably some of the more nuanced character moments. The script overall does have its moments, like a pretty great scene where De Niro ambushes Sean Bean with a coffee cup.

Come for the jaw-dropping car chases,
stay for the decent action-thriller confines.

Watch Ronin on iTunes or Amazon