John Frankenheimer is one of my favourite directors, mainly due to his trilogy of films about paranoia in the ’60s: The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and, perhaps the best of them all, Seconds. Frankenheimer did some fine work in the ’70s, most notably the four-hour-long The Iceman Cometh, but like many men of his generation he had problems with alcohol and in turn his work suffered through much of the ’70s and especially the ’80s. He had a late career rebirth with a string of television films, and ended up winning four Emmys in a row. His film work was still spotty, however, with the underrated political thriller Year of the Gun and Ronin being his finest theatrically released work from that later era.
Ronin is about a ragtag group of ex-Special Ops who are hired to steal a mysterious and heavily guarded suitcase. Naturally, they double cross each other, and alliances shift within seconds but Robert De Niro’s Sam and Jean Reno’s Vincent try to hold things together despite the complete chaos that the mission has become. They should’ve known from the get-go, though, because the syndicate is extremely shady, and is headed by the sphinx-like Deirdre (Natascha McElhone)…
Since Ronin’s initial release in 1998, it has gained a bit of a reputation of some kind of great ’90s action film—and it’s really not. It was, however, very influential on that genre of action films that grabs a big name Hollywood actor (in this case Robert De Niro) and throws him into some glamourous European city. You can see a clear influence of Ronin in the Taken and The Transporter series, and even the slightly classier Bourne films. Ronin, like those films, has a couple of great set-pieces but there is a lot to get through in between them.
Of course, Frankenheimer could shoot action very well, and the much-celebrated car chase sequences through Paris and Nice have an air of realism that is rare in action cinema. However, when it comes to the plot, you’ve seen it all before (and of course the suitcase is a MacGuffin in the end.) As he did on his car racing film Grand Prix, Frankenheimer directed all of the big action sequences and often rode along, which is rare because normally action sequences like that are handled by a second unit.
The film was initially written by a screenwriter who was a relative newcomer, John David Zeik, but according to everyone on the production, the noted playwright David Mamet came in and basically rewrote the entire thing. However, it doesn’t have any of the memorable Mamet speeches, so he clearly did it for the money and therefore used the alias ‘Richard Weisz’ on the film. Despite a few other projects, Zeik has also basically vanished from the film industry, so he must have been paid handsomely.
De Niro was already at the point in his career where he had stopped caring, and was just accepting the paycheck—he did Jackie Brown the year previously, which was really his last truly great performance. He is perfectly fine, but the film works because it features a strong supporting cast, like Jean Reno, who was hot in the states after the massive success of Leon, and Sean Bean (who doesn’t die for once!), Stellan Skarsgård and the always reliable Jonathan Pryce, who shows up as Deirdre’s handler.
Ronin is a fun euro-thriller which gives viewers some great set-pieces, but it’s overly long at times and in a couple of spots it really drags. Nevertheless, Frankenheimer’s direction at times is great, and the strong cast helps it through its dull moments.
The disc includes everything that was on the old MGM special edition, like a host of featurettes and a commentary from Frankenheimer. The two big features that Arrow added are a new interview with the cinematographer and a completely unrelated by excellent appreciation of Robert De Niro by none other than Quentin Tarantino, who talks about his ’70s work, Raging Bull and Once Upon A Time in America, and doesn’t hold back about his disappointment with some of his then recent choices.