Monday, September 19, 2011

Classic Throwback: Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)

I was recently made aware of some videos created by Jim Emerson on his blog, Scanners. In a three part series he examines and compares, shot-by-shot, the effectiveness of the construction of action/chase sequences in The Dark Knight and Salt, and a couple of classic San Francisco car chases sequences in Bullitt and The Lineup. It is really interesting, and fans of The Dark Knight may be surprised by how patchy the continuity is and how the film shifts between different planes of action, creating a disorienting effect. Salt's action scene is far more impressive, with Phillip Noyce's use of cause/effect ensuring we are never uninformed throughout the sequence. In the final video, where he discusses Bullitt, he also mentions another car chase sequence widely considered to be one of the greatest ever conceived. This appears in Ronin (1998).

Ronin is an action-thriller directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962) and written by respected playwright, David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), who appears in the credits under a pseudonym, and J.D Zeik (story). Having watched this film a number of times when I was younger – the impressive car chase sequence attracted me back for repeat viewings – I was intrigued to see how well it holds up. Having watched the aforementioned videos I knew the famous chase sequence would likely still be the highlight, but I wondered how the script would hold up. Not that well, as it happens. 

Opening in Paris, an Irish member of the Provisional IRA, Diedre (Natascha McElhone), assembles a team hired to attack an armed convoy of criminals and obtain a mysterious briefcase in their possession. They are never informed as to who has hired them, the identity of their targets or the contents of the briefcase. Dierdre’s handler, Seamus O’Rourke (Jonathan Pryce), reveals that Russian gangsters are preparing to bid for the case so the team must act quickly to intercept it. The hired specialists are former CIA Officer, Sam (Robert De Niro), former Euro Intelligence Agent, Vincent (Jean Reno), German electronics expert, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Larry (Skip Sudduth), a driver, and British weapons wrangler, Spence (Sean Bean).

The build-up to the ambush, which is a spectacular action sequence and an exciting and very well executed car chase, is long-winded, with very little actually happening in the first 30 minutes. This deliberate pacing is meant to work as a means for character development, but I found it to dwell on unnecessary relationships and waste time. Apart from an ill-fated attempt to purchase weapons in Seine, resulting in a shootout and a narrow escape, the cast mostly sit around in the Parisian warehouse discussing the mission and their intelligence backgrounds. 

With the tight-lipped Dierdre refusing to reveal more than is necessary, and actually explaining next to nothing, Sam rattles off question after question to give us something to go by. De Niro looks ridiculously bored here, while Natasha McElhone matches his interest with her own blank-slate performance. Sam is asked why he accepted the job. “I needed the money,” he replies. I think it is a similar case for De Niro.

Sam bonds with Vincent, another jaded, world-weary veteran, while he is immediately at odds with Spense, a younger man and an arrogant and reckless bigmouth whose obvious incompetence is challenged by Sam. He is later released from the team, having been exposed as a fraud. With the exception of establishing that Sam is a skilled and instinctive operative, the way these early sequences are structured serves no purpose and give Stellan Skarsgard and Skip Sudduth very little to do.

Following the Seine shootout, the action moves to the South of France, with a reconnaissance mission in Nice, and the ensuing ambush. When the target is a highly prized item, there will inevitably be a betrayal of some sort. At the half way Ronan adds an antagonist, who wishes to sell the contents of the case to the Russians for their own benefit. There is another entertaining action/pursuit sequence in the Roman Arena in Arles, where the team tracked the attempted sale, and a second car chase sequence. This one is the superior chase in the film, and is one of the best I have seen portrayed on film. Natasha McElhone and Robert De Niro are behind the wheel as the latter is in pursuit throughout Paris. There are several pile-ups, a number of hairpin intersection turns and both cars spend almost the entirety dodging cars on the wrong side of the road. It’s superb.

I love the fact that the film is shot on-location in the streets of Paris, Nice and Arles, heightening the suspense and realism (and beauty) of the film. I think some of the photography is quite inventive too. Frankenheimer’s camera is rarely static, and he seems to enjoy utilizing long takes, tracking the actors, circling around them, and throwing in an aerial crane shot or a progressive zoom or two. The action sequences are both easily decipherable and compelling, which is a rarity in the modern action film. 

It is just unfortunate that the script is so thin between the spectacles. All of this mayhem ensues purely because of a briefcase. None of the characters are developed, and their motivations to complete the job and switch allegiances have little weight. It is really suprising, considering Mamet’s involvement, how poor the dialogue is. There are some attempts at humour that miss the mark, and it is littered with clichés. Another qualm I have with the film is the ending, which feels stale and anticlimactic. But with the exception of the action sequences, I felt like the film was lazy, both in the performances and the pacing. 

Though it remains an entertaining action film, with a pair of aging actors (De Niro and Reno) taking on the heroic roles, it is very uneven. Technically, it is hard to fault, and Frankenheimer does a wonderful job filming the car chases. But the script, when you think about it, is pretty silly. It takes too long to become immersed in the action, and in between these action sequences are poorly conceived characters and thin plotting, and it's not particularly interesting.

My Rating: ★★★ (B-)


  1. That Emerson breakdown of "Salt" is just fantastic, and re-proves how amazing (and underrated) that film is.

    "Ronin" is one of my 5 favorite action movies "ever" and I would have to disagree on both the dialogue (which I thought was superbly dry) and the first 30 minutes, which I thought were skillfully tense. The opening sequence, actually, is my favorite part of the whole film because it's just pure filmmaking.

    (I hate to be that guy but here's a review I wrote of it last year if you're at all interested:

  2. That breakdown is fantastic. I love it. The Dark Knight one too. I respect all of your thoughts, and I did like that opening sequence too. Some of the cinematography (though dark and grimy) was really excellent. I checked out your review - great write-up. I left a comment over there. Thanks for the comment Nick!

  3. I'm a big fan of Ronin and feel like it works much better on repeat viewings. The first time, the plot can be confusing because it's presented in a such a minimal way. Any flaws are totally outweighed by the wonderful chases and great, subtle performances from the cast. Nice post.

  4. I have watched Ronin a bunch of times and enjoyed it. Even the foot chases are exciting. I didn't find the performances to be overly compelling. I like Sean Bean, but I found him disappointing, while De Niro and Reno made a great team. Thought I thought that De Niro looked really bored at times.

    I don't remember being confused by the plot - but it's simplicity (we need you to steal a suitcase from some guys - who they are and what's in the case doesn't matter) - doesn't feel like enough to create such an array of exciting shootouts and chases. Thanks for the comment, Dan!