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Released in 1998, Ronin was a modest box office success that’s remembered today more for its car chases than its plot. The film is a standard 1990s thriller whose true stars are the cars despite the acting heavyweights in the cast.
But, this isn’t Top Gear. Let’s talk about the film.
At its core, Ronin is a heist film about the consequences of a job gone bad. A group of mercenaries have been hired to steal a silver briefcase for Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) and her shadowy boss Seamus (Jonathan Pryce). There’s a team in the loosest sense of the word, made up of ex-CIA Sam (Robert De Niro), fixer Vincent (Jean Reno), ex-KGB Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and ex-British Army Spence (Sean Bean). The team have each agreed to work without the finer details of the scenario. They don’t know who has employed them, who they are up against or what they are stealing. There’s a fairly intricate plan discussed in several scenes to snatch the mysterious case before its owner makes a deal with the Russian mafia. Then, it all goes very wrong.
Describing Ronin as a standard 1990s thriller may appear to be reductive. However, it does get across the sense that a lot of the plot, characters and villains could have been lifted from any number of films of the 1990s. For one, De Niro’s presence conjures up the spectre of Heat even though Ronin is a lesser film. Here, the characters are one-dimensional professionals who could have been imbued with more empathy by the cast, had the script allowed for this. As a result, it’s hard to root for any of the characters as they attempt to complete this mysterious assignment.
Re-watching Ronin, it’s striking to note how little is explained. A better film would have distracted the viewer from its plot holes. Here, the flaws are signposted. Characters point at them at every opportunity. It’s never made clear what’s in the briefcase or why the antagonists want it. They are vaguely Russian mobsters and Irish terrorists (with dodgy accents) whose motivations and allegiances are never made clear. There are no speeches here about ideology, though there is a half-developed point about honour among soldiers that gets lost among the twists and double crosses of this excessively convoluted plot.
That isn’t to say that Ronin is a terrible film. It’s redeemed to an extent by the car chases.
Director John Frankenheimer’s other work includes French Connection II, The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds. He allows the cars roam around the streets of Nice and Paris in several enjoyable sequences that are the highlight of this film. The chase choreography doesn’t use CGI. Instead, real tyres burn and engines roar without any care for market stalls, speed limits or road markings.
The camera remains at the level of the driver and the viewer becomes a silent participant in the action. The audience could be in the cars with the cast or running along the streets trying to get out of the way of the speeding vehicles. These sequences have proved popular, appearing regularly on ‘best of’ lists over the last 20 years. They have also become influential in a range of films from the Fast and Furious franchise to The Bourne Identity and Baby Driver.
Ronin may not be a great example of a heist film, but it does offer some thrills for petrol heads.