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Should I Watch..? Ronin
What's the big deal?
Ronin is an action spy thriller film released in 1998 and was directed by the veteran film maker John Frankenheimer. It stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgård and Jonathan Pryce and concerns a group of highly trained professionals on the trail of a mysterious briefcase being sought by Russian and Irish forces. The film is widely regarded as a return to form by Frankenheimer after the disastrous The Island Of Dr Moreau (1) and is noted for its realistic car chases, French locations and its convoluted plot. The film received a warm reception from critics upon release who praised the film for its car chases and the performance by the cast, although the film would only go on to gross around $70 million worldwide. As such, the film remains an influential and under-rated thriller that perhaps gets a bit too clever for its own good.
What's it about?
At a bistro in Paris, IRA operative Deirdre meets up with mercenaries Sam, Vincent and Larry and escorts them through to a back room where fellow hired guns Gregor and Spence have been waiting for them. Deirdre then informs them why they've all been hired - a heavily armed convoy is transporting a briefcase, the contents of which Deirdre declines to inform them of. They must simply retrieve the briefcase from the convoy and return it to her, although they are unaware that Russian mobsters are also out to retrieve the case.
Once they have departed to Nice for the job, things quickly go downhill. The exchange is ambushed and Gregor makes off with the case himself, hoping to sell it to the Russians. Sam himself is shot while Spence also is not quite as he seems. Realising that Vincent is the only man he can trust, Sam leads the rest on a manhunt for Gregor and the case - hoping all the while that the trail leads to Deirdre's handler with the IRA, Seamus O'Rourke.
Robert De Niro
J.D. Zeik & David Mamet (as Richard Weisz) *
Release Date (UK)
20th November, 1998
What's to like?
It's unusual to find a film that combines thrilling action with a tense and intelligent storyline but Ronin manages to do so quite easily. In fact, it's all too easy to lose track of who is doing what to whom amid the film's myriad car chases and shootouts which does create a bit of confusion for viewers. Thankfully, the car chases are works of art in themselves and you can easily spot them influencing films like The Bourne Identity (2) and The Transporter (3) series. Frankenheimer's long experience of using car chases in his films (first developed a taste for such scenes in 1966's Grand Prix (4)) pays off in spades and his knowledge and understanding of French culture and locations allows the film to really indulge itself.
De Niro is a seasoned veteran himself and here, he is on more familiar territory than he is in dire comedies such as Meet The Fockers (5). However, he is outshone by Reno as Vincent whose appearance is as cool and collected as you'd expect from the star of Leon: The Professional (6). The script gives both men a chance to indulge in plenty of macho action scenes while being as enigmatic as possible. And while the movie leaves out plenty of detail that would have been useful for viewers, it doesn't feel like it patronises you. Yes, you need to concentrate but you can still enjoy it for what it is. It has a pleasingly retro feel to it that's not seen often these days, now that everything has been swamped in CG. However, old school doesn't mean old-hat - the film has a tense, meaty feel to it that matches the aggression of the picture overall.
- More than 300 stunt drivers were used in the making of the film and around 80 vehicles were destroyed in the process.
- Three of the film's cast have appeared in the James Bond series as villains - Bean was in GoldenEye (7), Pryce starred in Tomorrow Never Dies (8) and Michael Lonsdale was Drax in Moonraker (9).
- The briefcase's contents are never revealed, making it a good modern example of a MacGuffin. Conceived and named by Alfred Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is an object which drives the plot forward without having any importance to the film itself like the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction (10).
What's not to like?
A couple of small flies do happen to land in an otherwise smooth tin of ointment. Both McElhone and Pryce especially play their roles with so much 'Oirish' gusto that it borders on the comical. Accents are so bad that part of me wanted to watch Father Ted whilst eating a bowl of Lucky Charms on St Patrick's Day. There are also a couple of presentation issues that didn't seem to fit that well - the opening text defining a ronin (basically, a samurai without a master who is forced to work as a mercenary) felt unnecessary and tacked on at the last minute. I also didn't like the relationship between Sam and Deirdre, essentially for the same reasons.
Other than that, this is an excellent little picture that does enough to get your attention but not enough to get your recommendation. Few people I've spoken to would remember Ronin but those who do recall an exciting, if slightly confusing, action thriller with all the right ingredients. But it seems to have been overshadowed by more modern action films like The Matrix (11) which blew films like this away with its stunning digital effects, incredible kung-fu sequences, explosive action and leather cat-suits. Not only that but then-current events had also overtaken the picture with the peace accord signed in Northern Ireland earlier that year. Sometimes, it's just a matter of timing...
Should I watch it?
Just because it's been overshadowed by the competition and real world events doesn't mean Ronin isn't worth a look. With its solid leading pair, enthralling story and amazing stunt work, the film is a delightful blast through some of France's more picturesque urban landscapes. It's a reminder of how good an actor De Niro really is but it also makes me wonder why Reno never quite capitalised on his mid-90's peak. Aside from some dodgy Irish accents and Pryce hamming it up, this is a fine movie and one that deserves far more attention.
Great For: action fans, Francophiles, De Niro fans
Not So Great For: Irish viewers, car insurance premiums in France
What else should I watch?
Ronin is really a very fine film indeed, only losing out its five-star rating due to Pryce and McElhone's ridiculous accents and it's too-clever-by-half screenplay. It feels akin to another spy thriller set mainly in France - The Bourne Identity replicates the Cold War atmosphere of its source novel but within a modern setting as well as utilising the same level of stunt work that you'll enjoy in this movie. Matt Damon also does a fantastic job as the amnesiac secret agent looking for answers in the wrong places. It too also has some pretty nifty driving sequences, something shared in both sequels - The Bourne Supremacy (12) and The Bourne Ultimatum (13). A word of warning, though - like most film series, it does get weaker the longer it goes on...
If you like your spy thrillers very confusing indeed then I suggest the first Mission: Impossible (14) which sees Tom Cruise skulk around in the shadows in Paris before blowing stuff up in his own, Hollywood fashion (note to film producers - check to make sure a helicopter could fly into the Channel Tunnel before shooting starts). The stunt work may have been endlessly copied and spoofed but given Cruise's love of jumping off dangerous things, it's still great fun to watch even if it does destroy any fond memories you might have had of the original TV show.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox