Directed by John Frankenheimer.
Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, Michael Lonsdale, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, and Skipp Sudduth.
A group of mercenaries are hired by Irish terrorists to retrieve a case to stop it falling into Russian hands.
In case you didn’t know, ronin are Samurai warriors whose masters have been killed, leaving the warriors free to roam the land as swords-for-hire to anybody willing to pay them. The movie Ronin informs you of this in the title cards so you could be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a bloodthirsty martial arts epic in the vein of Shogun Assassin until you are thrown into a Paris bistro as a ragtag group of shifty characters are assembling. We don’t know them, they don’t know each other and only one person knows why they are there – that person being Deirdre (Natascha McElhone – The Truman Show), whose thick Irish accent in a very French setting should be a tip-off that this is no ordinary meeting – and within a few minutes the minimal plot is laid out: Deidre has hired these mercenaries to retrieve a silver case before Russian gangsters get their hands on it.
What is in the case we don’t know, and we never will because it doesn’t matter as Ronin is a story about characters, their intentions and how they interact with each other in a heated situation. The character we are meant to follow most closely is Sam (Robert De Niro – Taxi Driver/Raging Bull), a former CIA agent with a lot of contacts, and it is his interactions with his ‘teammates’ – French fixer Vincent (Jean Reno – Leon), former SAS weapons expert Spence (Sean Bean – GoldenEye), German electronics wizard Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård – Deep Blue Sea) and American getaway driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth – Eraser) – that provide the most intrigue, especially during the scenes where they all meet for the first time and Sam uses his cunning to try and size everybody up. Naturally, this being a crime caper not everybody is who they claim to be and the double-crossing soon begins as the gang close in on the mysterious case, but the case is just a McGuffin as director John Frankenheimer (French Connection II/52 Pick-Up) builds up set piece after set piece – including a couple of magnificent car chases easily up there with Bullitt and Vanishing Point as some of the greatest stunt driving ever filmed – with an ensemble cast all on top of their game, which is just as well because underneath the car chasing spectacle this is an actor’s film.
With De Niro having shined in Heat three years before with his iconic screen match-up alongside Al Pacino, it is his chemistry with Jean Reno that is the most intriguing and exciting part of Ronin and it is a shame that the two didn’t continue their on-screen partnership as Reno’s affable and underplayed persona plays off De Niro’s intensity in a way that Pacino’s more theatrical tendencies didn’t, giving parts of Ronin the feel of a buddy movie despite all of the characters not really wanting to be friendly to each other at all. Plus this was on the cusp of De Niro sliding into parody territory – his next movie after Ronin was Analyze This – but coming off the back of Heat, Casino and Cop Land, looking back this could well be considered as one of Robert De Niro’s classic performances; he’s made good films since and played some varied roles but in Ronin De Niro is on top form.
Featuring Michael Lonsdale (Moonraker) and Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) – that’s three former Bond villains in one film! – in roles that are fairly thankless but would certainly be lesser ones without their gravitas, Ronin is fairly convoluted for what is basically a movie without a proper plot but such is the nature of a quality crime thriller and what is essentially a character piece. The action is extremely well shot and offers up the same excitement as many of the espionage thrillers of the ‘70s only with a ‘90s aesthetic, and the 4K restoration looks fantastic but make sure you watch it on as big a screen as you can to fully appreciate the brilliant cinematography. Extras include an audio commentary from John Frankenheimer, an archival appreciation of Robert De Niro from Quentin Tarantino, featurettes focusing on the car stunts, archival interviews, an alternate ending plus many other fun nuggets so there’s plenty to get stuck into if you fancy seeing how it was all done but if you don’t then just sit back and enjoy the ride with this fantastic edition of a relatively underappreciated gem of late ‘90s cinema.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★