High Octane Cinema: Ronin (1998)
John Frankenheimer’s work in the ‘60s solidified him as one of America’s greatest filmmakers — in just four years he released Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, and Seconds. Then, in the mid ‘90s, like many late-era filmmakers, Frankenheimer was in an odd position, shifting back and forth between TV movies and commercial failures. In 1996, Frankenheimer was brought in to help salvage The Island of Dr. Moreau and, in the end, partook in some of the most bizarre on-set stories that have lived well past the film, which itself was an overall failure. What Frankenheimer needed was a project that captured his New Hollywood sensibilities, one that also stood out in the cinematic landscape of the ‘90s. What he deservedly got was Ronin.
Ronin’s plot is both simple to follow in the grand scheme of things, yet hard to decipher scene to scene — so it goes in a screenplay co-written by David Mamet, who goes by the pseudonym Richard Weisz. Robert De Niro plays Sam, an American mercenary who joins a team of fellow professionals in France. They’re assigned to steal a metal briefcase from a heavily armored convoy. What should be an easy job ends in betrayal, which sends Sam on a mission of revenge (seemingly). According to Frankenheimer, Mamet fully took over the scriptwriting duties from J.D. Zeik, which explains the sterile nature of the non-sequitur laden dialogue. It works, though, as Mamet has an ear for professional men driven by pride and misguided honor. We follow Sam, Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), the team lead, and the only member of the team of thieves Sam trusts, Vincent (Jean Reno), as they chase the Russians and Irish, all of whom are after the same metal briefcase filled with who-knows-what.
Frankenheimer feels very much at home in these French settings, presenting them in a distinctly ‘70s European way — wide frames take full advantage of the scenery, with the Eiffel Tower seen prominently in the background of many shots. While the first half of the film is all about the planning of the initial heist, the second half is all about the aftermath. The team of missionaries gather all the right equipment and do the necessary legwork around Nice, France in order to prep for the ambush on the moving convoy. It’s in this slow build that the film gears up for the first of two sensational car chases.
In an early scene, one of the team members, Larry (Skipp Sudduth), asks for a fast car in order to help with the mission. More specifically, he requests an Audi S8 with a nitro boost. Now, I don’t know a damn thing about cars, but when a character sounds like he knows what he’s talking about and asks for something very specific, I know I’m going to be watching that same character use it effectively. Before we get to the actual heist, the team survives an ambush by some gunrunners and has to lose the cops after a shootout. Larry steps on the gas and tears through the French roads — it shouldn’t even count as a chase since the Audi S8 leaves the cops in the dust instantaneously. It’s a brief glimpse of what’s to come.
Sam’s team uses everything from remote-controlled stop lights, firecrackers, and even a bazooka to take down most of the cars in the targeted convoy. Sam and Vincent take pursuit in one car, while Larry takes his beloved Audi for a spin. There are six cars involved in this action sequence and Frankenheimer cuts it together in a way that first disorients the viewer, then makes things crystal clear by the time all points converge on the car that holds the loot. It is hard to differentiate between black car, black car, brown car, brown car, and another black car, but it’s never not exhilarating. We’re watching real cars barrel down curvy French landscapes — it’s a testament to how vital stunt drivers are and how no amount of CGI can replicate the thrills they conjure. De Niro’s stunt double, midway through the chase, pops up through the sunroof of a car going maybe, what, 80 miles per hour down a windy road while holding a rocket launcher — you would not have gotten any gasps from an audience by inserting a computer generated De Niro here.
We’re only halfway through the movie once the first car chase ends and the team gets double-crossed by one of their own — of course it’s Stellan Skarsgård’s character, Gregor. Once Sam finds Gregor, the second and biggest chase begins. There’s another betrayal as Gregor is taken by Deirdre and the man who originally set up the mission — it’s complicated — and Sam is in pursuit. There’s an added level of emotion here, since Deirdre and Sam shared a passionate kiss while on a reconnaissance mission earlier — was that genuine or just part of the plan, though? It's all part of the intrigue semmering underneath Sam's cold exterior. He has several reasons for catching up to the car that has the case and the three people who wants to settle the score with.
The two-car chase zips past Paris’ world-famous streets, making its way precariously around a roundabout, before driving underneath the iconic pont de Bir-Hakeim. Going back to just how real these sequences feel, you get a charge out of seeing two cars zip through these real-world locations, much like how Gene Hackman drove underneath the elevated train system in The French Connection — Frankenheimer directed the sequel to William Friedkin’s Best Picture winner, which gives some credence to the fact that this may be a clever nod that film's all-timer chase. If that wasn’t enough, Ronin’s action centerpiece shares another trait from a different Friedkin film — with options limited, the pursuees in both Ronin and To Live and Die in L.A. see a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign on and take it as a last-ditch effort to lose their respective pursuers. This stage of the chase in Ronin manages to heighten what was already another expert showcase of stunt driving — cars racing head-on towards each other narrowly miss one another, seemingly by inches. But, with how well the two cars involved in this chase manage to avoid their own disaster, they leave a trail of civilian destruction that’s just as heartless as the characters behind the wheel — from police cars to motorbikes and your average ‘Sunday driving’ vehicles, they’re all demolished and torn to bits by the pursuit.
For a director in their late sixties to take on a film as slick and as adrenaline-heavy as Ronin is something we take for granted nowadays, with our George Millers and Martin Scorseses running around. What Frankenheimer does in Ronin is something younger filmmakers wouldn't be able to replicate, as hard as they'd try. Unfortunately, Frankenheimer wouldn’t have the opportunity to reach Ronin levels again — the director released Reindeer Games and the HBO film Path to War in the time between Ronin and his passing. Like De Niro’s character, an American mercenary expertly maneuvering his way through Europe to pull off one huge heist, Frankenheimer approached the film as someone attuned to the process — he had been there before, job and job, and time may had passed but his reflexes were still razor sharp and he was still able to deliver results far exceeding expectations.