John Frankenheimer didn't have a lot of credibility in his last few years. His final film was the rather crap Reindeer Games, with Ben Affleck, and in 1996 he gave us the utterly terrible Island Of Doctor Moreau. However, he did do Ronin in 1998, which makes up for absolutely everything.
It is a detachment from glossy, MTV-directed, Hollywood action movies. If you want trash, like Bad Boys 2, then this isn't for you. Ronin returns to the gritty, rustic and deadly serious actioners of the Seventies, much like Frankenheimer's own French Connection 2.
The title refers to Samurai warriors in ancient Japan who were left with no cause, or purpose, if their master was killed. They'd roam the countryside, pretending to be thieves, beggars, even madmen and hiring their skills out to the highest bidder. Much like the lost, wandering freelancers that make up our cast of characters.
Robert De Niro is Sam, an ex-CIA agent (or is he?), who bands together with a ragtag group of similar ex-spies for a "no questions asked" job with what appears to be the IRA. First we have Vincent (the wonderful Jean Reno), as a French agent who knows where to find just about anything you want. Spence (Sean Bean) is a gung-ho SAS dropout who is waaaaay out of his depth and ends up jeopardising the whole mission. Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), an ex-KGB spy who knows his gadgets and another American called Larry (who is rather disposable). All of these men are led by Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), a young Irish woman who answers to Seamus O'Rourke (Jonathan Price), an IRA boss who is in a lot of trouble with his superiors.
Still with me? No? Well I'm gonna continue anyway. The group's mission is to steal a metallic briefcase from the Russian Mafia. The contents of this case are a mystery; all we know is that a lot of people are willing to pay mucho plento to get their hands on it.
As if the set-up wasn't tenuous enough, there is immediately too much suspicion within the group to bear. And the already complicated plot is thrown into endless chaos as double-crosses, double-double-crosses, secrets and lies screw things up in a big, big way.
It sounds tough going, but it's not really. I'll admit I didn't really like Ronin when I first saw it (or the second or third for that matter), but it's one of those movies that creeps back on you. Frankenheimer's direction is so flawless and masterful that every frame of every scene flows effortlessly The acting is so well rehearsed and the cast so well chosen that even in every gesture, idiosyncrasy and subtle glance you can read into the characters's hidden motives. It takes a good number of viewings to decipher Ronin, but when the story is this well done, who cares? Since its release there have been few action films that have come close to its intensity. Some, like Bourne Identity/Supremacy try to emulate its bleak tone, but don't match up. Supremacy has a car chase that was desperate to beat Ronin's, but is far too flashy.
That's also the ace up it's sleeve. About 80 minutes into the film, the second car chase is a juggernaut of film-making. Never before and probably never again for a long, long time, has there been a car chase so completely mental. No Michael Bay 1000 cuts a second, no slow-motion, no stunts silhouetted against the sunset, just sheer, relentless adrenaline, as DeNiro and Reno tear up the streets of Paris. It's the centrepiece of the movie and a perfect example of what REAL action film-making is.
Elia Cmiral's score is the other utterly perfect aspect of the movie. Simultaneously lonely, seductive and mysterious, it surely is one of the best themes ever and anyone with sense would go out and buy the soundtrack CD right away.
Ronin is perfection from beginning to end, from Frankenheimer's strong, imposing direction to David Mamet's script, riddled with cryptic dialogue and double-meanings.
No one can deny Ronin's importance as a real action picture. No one can watch crap like xXx, or 6 Fast 6 Furious, and claim Ronin to be a bad movie. It has enough, maybe too much, integrity and intelligence to shame anything that comes even halfway close. If you're sick of action flicks, or films in general, where the audience just sits there passively and is fed information, then Ronin is the cure.
It may sound like a bizarre comparison, but it's on par with Lost Highway, as one of those movies you have to figure out in your own damn time.