John Frankenheimer’s RONIN is a movie that kicked my ass in a multiplex in the year 1998 A.D. The thing that really stuck in my head about it was the car chases, of course – specifically the one where they end up going the wrong way in a tunnel. But I also remembered it being very tough and smart, I was pretty confident it would hold up, and man was I right. This is a ’90s classic. But timeless.

The title is a metaphor comparing former intelligence agents and soldiers to masterless samurai. It’s about a group of them, apparently serving no higher cause, just letting whoever-the-fuck hire them for their particular set of skills. Sam (Robert De Niro between GREAT EXPECTATIONS and ANALYZE THIS) is a former CIA guy who’s in Montmartre to meet IRA operative Deirdre (Natascha McElhone, THE TRUMAN SHOW), who’s putting together a team that also includes the Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno doing penance for GODZILLA), Englishman Spence (Sean Bean, GOLDENEYE), German computer expert Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård right before DEEP BLUE SEA) and American driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth, MONEY TRAIN, 54). They will be stealing a metal case from a heavily armed convoy, so they discuss what they know and don’t know about how it will go down, how and when they’ll do it, what equipment they’ll need, where they’ll get that, how they’ll prepare.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to the story – they’re just coming together to do this one job, and that’s about it. It opens with Sam coming down these stairs to the bistro where they meet, it ends on the same stairs. Of course, the job has many complications. They gotta get the case before the Russian mafia buys it, the guys selling them guns try to screw them, they get ambushed, there are double crosses, there are chases and gun fights and regroups and rendezvous. But from the beginning until the end they’re just trying to get this case.

What’s in it? I don’t know – the Rabbit’s Foot, maybe? We never find out, because it doesn’t matter. Sam asks early on, but only for planning purposes – how big is it, how heavy, is it handcuffed to a guy? Says if they don’t tell him they need to pay him extra. I guess they must do that.

The story does find time to fit in some romance, but with tasteful minimalism. When Sam and Deirdre are staking out a house from a car, someone drives by and they have to do the ol’ “pretend we’re making out” move. When they pull apart Deirdre puts her finger to her lip. I thought she was thinking, “Well, that was awkward.” But then she leans in and they just continue for real. No discussion necessary.

It’s the best kind of procedural – watching pros do their work, not having to talk about everything, not having to explain it to us, lots of little details we never saw in a movie before, never thought of before, must’ve been from research, but if not it sure fooled me, it seems plausible. My favorite is the scene where Sam photographs a VIP and his security detail in a hotel lobby by asking a random guy to take pictures of him and his “wife.” As Sam holds out the camera to show the guy how it works he’s actually pointing it where he needs to and clicking away. Things were so much more complicated when you had to use film.

Another great moment: they finally get the case, Sam notices silver paint on his hand, realizes that means a team member made a fake case and handed it to him. Once again, it doesn’t have to be explained to us in dialogue, he just sees the silver and yells that it’s a bomb.

I suppose this is sort of a spoiler for something that doesn’t happen, but of course you don’t know who you can trust in a movie about this, and I couldn’t remember if Reno was playing a traitor here like he did in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. I was so happy that he wasn’t, and we just get to appreciate him being a true friend to Sam. It’s wholesome.

Speaking of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, by the way, I know this came after the first one, but it really reminds me of that series, especially the McQuarrie ones. It’s less complicated, more down to earth, but with many similarities. Trickery, chases, exotic locations, exotic faces, matter-of-fact spycraft. It also made me think of that other hard-nosed ‘90s De Niro classic I recently revisited, HEAT, the way these cold-hearted professionals are willing to just absolutely fuck shit up in broad daylight in front of civilians if need be. They just have this resolute “Whelp, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but…” attitude.

When things really go south, Sam gets hit by a ricochet and Vincent brings him to his friend Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale, MUNICH). Instead of the standard underworld doctor who works out of a disgusting warehouse or something, Jean-Pierre has a nice villa. He also uses his precise hands to paint miniature models of the 47 ronin, and tells Sam their story. (You gotta love a random miniature-model-hobbyist in an action movie.) Vincent has to help with the surgery, cutting into his friend with an X-acto knife (also used for the models?), but it works out, and they don’t even clank the slug into a metal plate or glass of liquid when they’re done. I like when Sam says, “If you don’t mind, I’m gonna pass out.” Not being funny. Being polite.

In the first couple scenes I didn’t clock the blond bespectacled Gregor as Skarsgård, but of course that’s him. It’s funny to see this all-star team – DeNiro, Skarsgård, Reno, Bean, and then… some guy (Skipp Sudduth). Next to these movie stars he just seems like a regular person, and that made me almost believe he was a real driver. Then I read that he did in fact do most of his stunts, because he’s an amateur racer and stunt driver in addition to being an actor.

I honestly think this movie would still be great without amazing car chases, but I’m glad they did them anyway. Frankenheimer avoided speeding up the frame rates, and used his camera mounts from GRAND PRIX, with the actors actually filmed inside cars driven up to 100 mph, holding dummy steering wheels with high performance drivers really steering on the right side. The final chase used 300 stunt drivers. One simple trick is that the chases don’t use much music, which I think helps to make them feel more tense and real.

I don’t think of the ‘90s as a big car chase era. Is RONIN the best of the decade in that department? I looked for best car chases of the ‘90s lists, found a video that had some choices like JADE, TAXI (the original French one), THE ROCK (sorry, I hate that one), WHO AM I?, SPEED (of course), T2 (duh), and yes, RONIN at #1.

Car stunt coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez was Roger Moore’s stunt double driver in A VIEW TO A KILL. Good job, Jean-Claude.

The script is credited to J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz, story by Zeik. Weisz is a pseudonym for David Mamet, who rewrote Zeik’s original script. Zeik has said that it’s mostly his script while Frankenheimer once said “we didn’t shoot a line of Zeik’s script,” but later either felt bad or got some flack from the WGA or somebody so he walked that back in an open letter in Variety. So who knows, but the simplicity of it, the lack of unneeded explanation, and details about tradecraft seem very Mamet. On the other hand, the pretentious comparison to ronin also seems Mamet-y, and that reportedly comes from Zeik’s fascination with James Clavell’s Shogun. So who knows? Not me. All I know is that it was Zeik’s first film, and his others are the TV movie WITCHBLADE, the Michelle Yeoh movie THE TOUCH, Seagal’s PISTOL WHIPPED, and a 2016 TV movie called HENRY THE 9TH.

Here’s something that’s interesting, at least to me. This was produced by Frank Mancuso Jr., son of the former president of Paramount who started working on the FRIDAY THE 13TH series with part 2 when he was in his early twenties. RONIN is easily the classiest movie he has his name on. He did it between SPECIES II and STIGMATA.

This was near the end of the line for Frankenheimer, and it was his last film that was well-received. He was coming off of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, an eleventh hour replacing-the-fired-madman-director gig on a legendarily troubled production, widely perceived as a disaster, but fuck ‘em, that movie rules and everybody who told him otherwise is honor bound to visit his grave and apologize. He ended on REINDEER GAMES, which is also pretty good, but he got fucked over by the studio and everybody was mean about the movie at the time. So I’m glad everybody at least patted his back for this one. He must’ve known he still had it.

Anyway, trust me: if it’s been a while for you too, it’s time to revisit RONIN.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 26th, 2024 at 7:14 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

31 Responses to “Ronin”

  1. I fucking love this movie; I own the Arrow Blu-Ray from a few years ago.

    To my mind, this movie contains the most brilliant line of dialogue David Mamet ever wrote, one you mention briefly in your review: when Robert De Niro asks, “What’s in the case?” and Natasha McElhone says, “You don’t need to know.” It’s such an unbelievable meta moment that also works within the context of the story. It could only have been better if McElhone had delivered that line looking straight into the camera.

  2. A classic. My favorite scene is when De Niro is like, “Whoa whoa whoa, wait a fucking minute, is Sean BEAN in this? Oh hell no” and kicks him the fuck out of the movie before he can get himself killed and ruin everything. Any other movie, Bean would come back at the end as a turncoat, but in this one he just fucks off and takes the L like any other chump who got fired on his first day working at Starbucks because he lied about knowing how to run the cappuccino machine.That’s the kind of unpretentious realism I appreciate in a motion picture.

  3. Also very funny that in a movie with a huge body count, the Sean Bean character survives.

  4. For some reason it took me until earlier this month (Was Vern in my head again?) before I was actually able to see it, although it has been on my list since its release. And hell yeah, it’s great! Never boring, great characters, twisty turny without ever getting overcomplicated and a nice dose of “We can trust the audience, we don’t have to spoonfeed every detail to them and add even some fun, unexpected touches”.

    I do remember that it opened to mediocre reviews though. More on the positive side, but also mostly “Yeah, it’s okay and kinda forgettable”. But it not just had a long shelf life, by now it really has the rightful reputation of a great 90s thriller.

    Another thing I remember was how much it was hyped in Germany because of Katharina Witt’s cameo. For those who don’t know: She is a quite successful German ice skater (now retired) and that’s what she plays here. According to IMDb trivia, they even attribute her real life achievements to her character here. Also at some point she dated Richard Dean Anderson and played a villain in an episode of that Pam Anderson show VIP.

  5. Yeah, this is a great movie.

    When I first saw it I remember wondering why DeNiro looked kind of terrified during the driving scenes, and then I found out about how they shot them. Checks out.

    STIGMATA was at least kind of classy, wasn’t it? It’s been a while.

    And I resent the comparison to the McQuarry MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movies! Those films take place in cloud cuckoo land – they’re as far away from this is possible. I mean, I kind of get where you’re coming from in that it’s the one mission and that’s it, but come on: this one has a good script, the latter MIs…. really really don’t.

  6. This movie is awesome. I’ve seen it a three times in recent years and liked it more each time. I never knew that about Mamet being involved but that makes sense, that’s cool. Some good Mamet-y lines. E.g.
    “The only thing is that the map, the map is not the territory.”
    “Tell me about an ambush? Tell me about an ambush? I ambushed you with a cup of coffee!”
    “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.”
    “Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution or you’re just part of the landscape.”
    Sean Bean asking “You worried about saving your own skin?” and De Niro replying “Yeah, I am. It covers my body.”

    Also, last time I watched this I looked up where it was in De Niro’s career timeline and I realized what an absolute monster of a run he had in the 90s. In his old age he’s been in a couple great movies here and there, but more often he’s in bad movies. He’s in a lot of bad comedies, a lot of forgettable DTV stuff, he’s worked a lot with David O’Russell, et cetera. I didn’t realize it but I had subconsciously come to under-appreciate him. But from 1995 to 1998 he was in 10 (English-language) and five of them were CASINO, HEAT, COP LAND, JACKIE BROWN, and RONIN. What a run.

  7. Ronin is great, saw it in the theater, still think the chases are better than F&F because they are real and there’s real danger.

    That said, there’s a weird bit of… CGI?… in the movie. There’s a scene where they back up in the older Mercedes quickly and they’ve comped in smoke for the burn out. Even though it’s been years, I still remember it being distracting on rewatch.

  8. Petehammer: Yeah, that moment was indeed a nice “Oh look, old timey effect technology” chuckle.

  9. I just got this last month from Kino for $10 and felt like I robbed someone.

    Weirdly, I don’t think this did very well. I remember it getting a lot of ‘meh…’ reviews and people having a weird aversion to seeing it. (personally, I saw it at seven and got back in line for the nine showing)

    For the writing controversy — put it this way — I was shocked to not see David Mamet’s name is the credits, and declared “whoever wrote this does a dead-on Mamet impersonation” (I later found out the reason for the great impersonation)

  10. JTS: I have definitely used “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt” to make major life decisions.

  11. ‘You labor or management?’
    ‘If I was management, I wouldn’t have given you a cigarette.’

    God damn but I am jealous of people who got to see this on the big screen.

  12. God damn but I am jealous of people who got to see this on the big screen.

    My review was “it’s like an imax movie you see in a regular theater. And it’s about a crack fucking team instead of hawks or deep sea life”

    (back then, imax was only at museums, and only showed movies about nature shit)

  13. This is one I watch every few years. Its on regular rotation as a terrific old-school spy/action film.

  14. One thing that I forgot to mention: This is a movie that probably had script rewrites to make it take place in whichever European city had the narrowest roads. Nothing against a good ol’ American highway chase, but have there ever been more claustrophobic car chases than in this movie? It’s incredible that there weren’t any headlines about stuntcars crashing into buildings all the time. These drivers really knew what they were doing!

  15. Great movie. And all due credit to Zeik, but that script is the Mametest Mametting that ever Mamought.

  16. I entered the intraweb time machine to confirm that –yes– despite a few ecstatic reactions, the reviews were pretty mediocre. The Dallas Morning News review’s entirety is not online, but the pull quote is “John Frankenheimer used to make real movies”. I’m assuming context makes that quote less… punchable.

  17. Let me just chime in and say that RONIN is a brilliant thriller. It’s a bit distracting with the three Bond villains, captain Tupolev, Leon and Travis Bickle (glad they dropped the cameo by Ron Jeremy, it would have been too much), but that’s what you get from watching movies every day. The car chases are one thing, but I think the shooting have to be mentioned also. All the actors look like they know what they’re doing (except for Sean, that is), and the sound is just marvelous. If I could only have three DeNiro movies, I could live quite happily with RONIN, HEAT and MIDNIGHT RUN.

  18. Love, love LOVE this one. I remember that even at the time of release, it had a reputation for being slightly old-fashioned, but it has proven all the assholes who said that wrong (or weirdly, right?) because it holds up so well today.

    “I don’t know. That’s the second thing they teach you.”

  19. Hm, I now find out that it is actually a spy film. Perhaps it is worth seeing, in that case. I completely ignored it in the past, since the title made me immediately think that it would be just another example of that mass-made US tosh about some USA-an pretending to be someone that he isn’t, from another country, history and culture, and triumphantly showing the people from it how it is REALLY done, yeehaw – like that scientologist dwarf in that later film, where he pretended to be a samurai.

  20. Definitely this and MIDNIGHT RUN for DeNiro at his best. Also, the most quotable movie ever.

    ‘What would you like for Christmas?’
    ‘My two front teeth.’

    ‘You ever kill anybody?’
    ‘I hurt somebody’s feelings once.’

  21. Frankenheimer – has always been kind of a forgotten/overlooked master. When you consider some of his filmography – BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE,SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE TRAIN (a totally unappreciated action masterpiece, see it!) SECONDS, GRAND PRIX – so well shot that it took until last year for Michael Mann to shoot car racing footage the equal of it, BLACK SUNDAY, 52 PICK-UP (the best Elmore Leonard adaptation) DEAD BANG, THE FOURTH WAR, YEAR OF THE GUN, THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, RONIN and REINDEER GAMES.

    Frankenheimer was an old school craftsman – schooled in the world of live television production in the 1950s, so many of the great directors came out of this world. He just knows how to compose and shoot in a very compelling way – because the films are so well crafted, shot, edited – they feel very modern today, because you just hardly never see his type of ‘classic’ filmmaking craft much anymore

    Verns reviewed the Mamet joints REDBELT and SPARTAN. I really like REDBELT – but SPARTAN is a fantastic little thriller – full of line after line of Mamet speak – a killer performance from Val Kilmer, it’s very much a spiritual cousin to Ronin.

    I was lucky enough (and now old enough) to have seen this in the theatre during it’s original release – and I knew it was gonna be a classic, that it would find favour years later. How anyone could not baffled me then.

  22. Such an awesome movie with a stacked cast, speeding bullet plot hidden under a lot of talking and glaring, explosive crowd-filled action and, of course, multiple exciting chases.

    I know you don’t often do plot rundowns Vern but so much good stuff is missing from Pryce’s weasely, nervous man-behind-the-scenes to the whole unraveling of Bean under the bridge.

    Hopefully your inability to link Skarsgard’s DEEP BLUE SEA means you’ll finally be getting around to that goofy Harlin rollercoaster 😛

    I loved RONIN on the big screen and it sucked how long we had to wait for the Bli-ray but now we get a beautiful sound field through those narrow streets, crowded sidewalks and open spaces, great foley work taking center stage as opposed to a pervasive score.

  23. LOL, Jade

  24. Ugh. “I don’t *remember*”, not “I don’t know.” Stupid medication.

  25. I WISH I had seen this one in theaters, but I came to it years later once it had built a reputation. Someone mentioned some of the contemporary reviews calling it old-fashioned, and I think that is why we all still appreciate it so much. Back then it must have seemed positively quaint with its lack of huge explosions, CGI nonsense, older cast, and lack of MTV-style editing and soundtrack. In the era between the rise of Bay-hem and the arrival of The Matrix, this definitely felt out of place. And it doesn’t have the bombast of an 80s action flick either, it really feels like a 70s action/thriller with a bigger budget and more action. Now it stands out as an all-time classic without any caveats or goofy “of the era” moments or stylistic choices.

    I always remember the bit where the big car chase is about to kick into gear, and one of the characters (Skarsgaard I think?) quietly buckles his seatbelt without comment. Such a great “oh shit, its on” moment. That’s this movie in a nutshell, thrilling but reality-based action and (for the genre) subtle character moments that establish all these people as professionals. Other than Sean Bean, of course, and if I agree with one criticism of this movie its that his character seems too stupid to even make it as far as he did. I feel like they could have written a fuck up less obvious than the crossfire thing, as it seems like anyone who has any familiarity with guns would realize that was an issue. Not a big deal, though. I have re-watched my DVD of this a few times, but this one is worth upgrading to Blu.

  26. Only posted once before; can't remember under what name

    February 28th, 2024 at 1:59 am

    I tried to make a comment earlier, but it was marked as spam, so assuming this goes through, I’ve since been beaten to the punch concerning the comparison/kinship between Ronin and the even more Mamet-y Spartan. I like to think of them taking place in the same universe and someday will get around to doing a proper double feature. I live in hope, but I doubt Spartan will get a 4K Blu-ray release at all, let alone one as nice as Kino Lorber’s release of Ronin, seeing as it was only released on Blu-ray at all in Germany (the Val Kilmer commentary track alone is worth it, though it’s present on the DVD as well).

    This, however, has yet to be posted: A Comprehensive Review of the Henchm[e]n and Heavies of Ronin

    Sadly, despite the existence of a “Henchman Review” tag, this remains the only entry in the series six years on.

  27. one criticism of this movie its that his character seems too stupid to even make it as far as he did

    I’ve heard this before, and I’ve never got that. It takes pains to show everyone is suspicious of him from jump street, and I always understood it as showing the audience how desperate Deirdre/Seamus is for ‘labor’, rather than having her say “we have to consider anyone and everyone for this job”

    LOL, Jade

    I know this is a controversial opinion, but Jade kinda kicks ass

  28. Chris – I think I’ve gotten in the habit of doing *way too much* plot recapping, and I consciously tried to do less of that here. But I agree, those are great parts of the story, especially the whole Sean Bean arc. Like Majestyk said earlier in much better words than I could have, I fully expected him to show up for revenge later and it’s so much better that he doesn’t. He’s just gone.

  29. Not much to add to what people have said here, other than I remember Katarina Witt being a distraction, of the “Whoa! They really cast Katarina Witt in that part” kind. She’d already played herself in JERRY MAGUIRE, so I guess this was a step up.

    Anyway, Frankenheimer could direct the hell out of a good screenplay, and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is a masterpiece, and, for what it’s worth on my all time greats list.

    A Frankenheimer “movie” that hasn’t got a mention yet is THE ICEMAN COMETH. In fact, it’s a 4 hour filmed stage play, but with a cast that includes Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Moses Gunn and Clifton James. I struggle to get a lot out of the play, but there is a certain thrill watching those guys do it for the love of acting. It’s not THE DIRTY DOZEN though.

  30. Thanks to this review, I watched this for the first time. I dig the homages to multiple Friedkin movies in the chase sequences. But my favorite detail(s) is how many innocent bystanders get absolutely murked. It’s sadly realistic, incredibly darkly humorous, and sells us on the amorality of these professional hard men we’re following. Some poor schmo takes a bunch of squibs or crashes his car, and Our Guys don’t stop to consider it at all, they just keep on with the mission.

  31. De Niro-55

    The ages of the principle male actors the year RONIN released. As someone above has remarked, how amazing that they crafted not just a pitch perfect action thriller, but cast them with actors who actually look like they’ve seen and dealt with serious shit, and not just in a gimmicky EXPENDABLES/SPACE COWBOYS kinda way where it’s “Yeah, we’re old, hahaha, but we’ve still got it in us for one more adventure”.

    Re-made today, they’d toss in Chris Evans, maybe a Hemsworth brother or 2 and Kevin Hart with a cameo from Tom Holland in the Bean role to make up the ensemble. De Niro may be roped in for the Lonsdale part so they can get him to spew the “Ronin” monologue in that inimitable De Niro voice.

    Can’t add anymore that hasn’t been articulated better here except to say that while Mrs KayKay shares my love for action movies, she has a rule about not re-watching them. It’s only broken for RONIN, which we watch every year. And love anew.

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