John Frankenheimer/ USA/ 1998/ 121 mins
Available on Blu-Ray now.
There’s a strong argument that Ronin is one of the last great practical action films before the likes of The Matrix swept Hollywood away on a digital tide. It’s also a brilliant example of complex plotting augmenting a simple story.
Actually, to say the story is simple is something of an overstatement. Ronin is pared back to the point of emaciation. There’s a McGuffin (something in a case), and a team of ex special-forces are assembled to hijack it. That’s it. There’s a spartan elegance to it, but it would be nothing without a perfect storm of sharp dialogue (from David Mamet writing under a pseudonym), whip-crack plotting of cross, double, and treble cross, and a tremendous cast headed by Robert De Niro in his last great action role.
Veteran director Frankenheimer knew how to create a suspenseful film (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds) and to film cars being driven at suicidal speeds (Grand Prix, The French Connection II), and combines the two to fine effect. Right from the opening moments in an intriguing “getting the gang together” opening, every drop of tension is wrung from the set up.
Expect a barreling, propulsive blast of action with the trappings of a spy thriller, played out against the boulevards of Paris and the narrow, picturesque streets of Nice and Arles. It feels like classic Bond dragged through a hedge and picking up The French Connection and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold along the way). It also takes some cues from the violence of Hong Kong thrillers earlier in the decade, as the innocent bystander body count shoots towards Hard Boiled levels. This adds a certain nihilism to proceedings, especially as we’re never sure what it’s all in the service of, but it injects a genuine sense of danger that balances out the undeniable silliness.
Perhaps the main pleasure of Ronin is the great cast playing off each other. Alongside De Niro is a stoic Jean Reno, a geeky but ruthless Stellan Skarsgård, and a sweaty Sean Bean as the gang hired by fierce IRA operative Natascha McElhone (along with Jonathan Pryce, just about getting away with a Northern Irish accent). It’s a shame Reno seems to have faded from view somewhat and De Niro seems intent on razing his legacy to the ground and then salting the earth.
It’s easy to say that they don’t make them like this anymore, but it’s true in the case of Ronin. It’s a beautiful throwback to the grit of the 70s with the a slice of the nastiness that crept into the action films of the 80s. A perfect addition to Arrow Video’s expanding canon.