November 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Ronin (1998)

November's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) again comes from 1998 (which is apparently in a duel with 1996 for the title of Most Underrated Movie Year of the 90's). Known as the last great film from John Frankenheimer, Ronin is also famous for featuring what's arguably considered the greatest car chase ever filmed. I hesitate to use the word "arguably" because it's not really a debate. It's the best chase ever - period.

Sneaking into theaters in September of 1998, Ronin was immediately submarined by the box-office monster Rush Hour, which opened the week prior and took no prisoners on its way to becoming a smash hit. I'd have to reference my ticket stub collection (yeah, I have one) to determine when I first saw Ronin, but it was definitely in the theater that fall because I remember how awesome my friends and I all thought it was.

Unfortunately, we differed from a number of stuffy critics. Writing in New York Magazine (before he became a critic for The New Yorker), David Denby lamented the nonsensical plot, ultimately calling Ronin "an act of connoisseurship for people who have given up on movies as an art form." In the Washington Post, Michael O'Sullivan compared it to "a high-brow Steven Seagal film, with massive gun battles that casually disregard civilian casualties and too many overlong car chases through the twisty streets of Paris and Nice." He even went on to chastise Frankenheimer for filming a car chase in the tunnels of Paris because it was "unnervingly reminiscent of a reenactment of Princess Di's demise." Come on. Reminds me of the "R" rating the MPAA slapped on Changing Lanes in 2002 because the World Trade Center towers could be seen in the background of a few scenes.

Is Ronin a classic crime caper for the ages? Maybe not. The plot is unnecessarily convoluted (Russian and Irish splinter groups are after a mysterious silver suitcase), there's not much character development and the finale is mostly lackluster. But all of these flaws make it merely good instead of excellent, and the action bumps it back up to at least a respectable level of greatness. The star-studded cast, which includes Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Natascha McElhone and Jonathan Pryce, has been overlooked for far too long. While none of them turn in award-winning performances, they each perfectly fit their roles, and De Niro especially does well as the nucleus of the story. His do-it-yourself surgery following a gunshot wound may be a chore to sit through, but at least it's followed by a clever line: "If you don't mind, I think I'm going to pass out now."

Sounds a bit like David Mamet, doesn't it? I mean he rea- what's that? Mamet wrote the screenplay? But the credits list J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz? Ah, I see. Mamet was so upset about sharing a screenwriting credit with Zeik (who created the story) that he refused to lend his real name to the film's credits. Politics aside, Mamet's sharp writing makes for some pretty entertaining dialogue - unusual for your average crime drama. Instead of rolling your eyes at typically predictable lines, you actually find yourself interested in the conversations even when you have no idea what the characters are talking about.

Ironically, however, the scenes without dialogue are the highlights of Ronin. Frankenheimer lets fast cars and big guns do the talking in several outstanding action sequences, all filmed on location in various French cities. Hundreds of stuntmen and stunt drivers were employed on the film, giving it an air of authenticity that you just don't see these days (some Bourne sequences and the opening of 2006's Casino Royale are maybe the last best examples). Why go through all that trouble choreographing long action sequences when you can use green screens and CGI?

I'll tell you why - your car chases won't be nearly as impressive as those in Ronin. Like its peers in Bullitt and The French Connection (curiously, Frankenheimer directed The French Connection II), the chases in Ronin are long affairs that continue to build tension with every thrilling second. I'm not taking anything away from those masterful sequences - and they are masterful - but neither chase is as downright complicated as this one (watch it with full volume in full screen mode for the best experience):

This clip, in addition to an earlier chase scene in Nice (you'll have to rent the movie to see that one), completely changed the game for Hollywood car chases. Many have since tried to beat it (the Matrix Reloaded, the Bourne movies,the Bond movies, The Fast and The Furious, etc.), but they don't come close to achieving the gripping realism of the Paris chase, and it may be years before any movie does. Notice the lack of music during the first three minutes. The perfectly choreographed traffic, impossibly timed crashes and breathtaking near-misses. The first-person and behind-the-driver camera angles. The lack of silly tension-breakers ("Oh, whoops - sorry!"; "Hey, my caaaar!"). The seamless editing, and even the great acting by the drivers and passengers. On first viewing, about the only noticeable flaw in the chase (aside from the eventual use of music) is the fake-looking entry into the final tire blowout/rollover, but Frankenheimer can be forgiven for wanting to make it look like the actors were actually in the car.

It's a stunning seven minutes, and experiencing it in the theater was a thrill comparable to taking a BMW for a test drive. Speaking of which, that's exactly what legions of people would do years later when BMW released its brilliant marketing campaign, officially known as The Hire but informally known as the Best Car Commercials Ever Made. Eight short films featured Clive Owen driving people around in BMWs from different model series. The actors (his passengers) were Hollywood stars, and each of the films was directed by a different filmmaker, including Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wong Kar-wai, and Guy Ritchie. And, at the helm of the very
first of the eight films, The Ambush, was none other than John Frankenheimer, master of the car chase. It would be one of the last films directed by Frankenheimer before his death following a stroke in 2002.

Looking back on his filmography, it's truly a shame that two out of his last three movies can be considered among the worst of the last decade and a half. Both The Island of Dr. Moreau, which immediately preceded Ronin, and Reindeer Games, which immediately followed it, are abominations. In fact if it wasn't for Ronin, you might have to go back to the 70's to find anything respectable by Frankenheimer, whose greatest career achievement was probably The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. He may not have been an Oscar-worthy director (he was never nominated in nearly four decades of work), but with Ronin he's left his legacy by influencing every car chase we've seen in the last 10 years.


  1. I am no fan of this film, but you make a passionate and altogether reasonable endorcement for it. As I've stated in the past, that is really all we are looking for here. I have a good friend who completely agrees with you.

  2. Well thank you for that, Sam, despite your own detachment from Ronin. Its storyline doesn't do justice to classic American and European noir tales, but for a 90's action movie I find it a lot more intriguing than most.

    Be sure to invite your friend over here on my behalf. :-)

  3. Ever since I stumbled across Frankenheimer's "Seconds" and "The Train" almost fifteen years ago, I've been an ardent admirer- yes, I even really liked the grimy attitude of "Reindeer Games". I remember myself and a group of friends being the only ones in the theater on opening Friday night of "Ronin" and absolutely loving it. It's a great film to revisit from time to time. And for everyone who complains that the suitcase makes no sense because we never see what's in it(and no its not an homage to "Pulp Fiction" which in itself is an homage to an even earlier film) if you watch and listen carefully, it makes sense. I love the way DeNiro nonchalantly murmurs to McElhorne, "walk away... I came for your boss not the case... walk away". Since the film is pretty much on spook DeNiro's side, it makes complete sense that we never know what's in it. Just a smart, great film.

  4. Well, at he was shooting for the stars with Dr. Moreau. Missed, of course, but still. Shoot, I haven't seen it since the theater; I'd kinda like to see it again...

    Anyway, Ronin. Ronin! I love this movie, though your reminding us of the p.o.s. ripoff attempts at the chase scenes kinda make me wish it never happened. Let's not forget The Italian Job (a brutal movie built around nothing but chases), Vantage Point (pretty much ditto) and however many other movies I don't want to remember.

    I consider myself a smart guy, but I'm far from a bright film watcher (I rarely catch plot twists ahead of time, Synecdoche makes me feel like an infant at times, etc.), but I don't get how anyone could have been lost or confused at Ronin's plot. There's a bit of "who's working for who" stuff early on, but a) it ain't like they don't tell you what the word "ronin" means and b) it's cleared up with ease. Weird.

    All that said, I don't see how this is underrated. I thought everyone (who had seen it) appreciated it. One of the best action flicks of the last 20 years, easy, and probably DeNiro's last best film.

    Oh, and damned awesome cast all around. If only J.T. Walsh could have been involved...

  5. Man, you guys are my brothers from another mother. Everything you've said is brilliant...except for the bit about Reindeer Games, Joseph....

    I also love De Niro in this - and that line at the end. Really throughout the whole movie, I like he just keeps his cool but asserts himself when he needs to. Great partner with Jean Reno, by the way - best pair in a long time.

    Fletch, I'll go ahead and dare you to watch Moreau again, even though I admit I haven't seen it but for the one time 10 years ago.

    The plot for Ronin didn't really get out of my hands, either, but I think the criticism was that it just didn't NEED to be so complicated, even if it was eventually explained.

    And for what's it worth I actually like the suitcase as McGuffin as well. Who cares what's inside?

    JT Walsh would have been a good office guy in this, although I also liked that there are only a couple of Americans involved in the plot.

    Regarding the underratedness - well I always kind of knew a lot of people hadn't seen it, and then I checked out both the RT and Metacritic scores, which hover around 60%. Hardly an acclaimed film, which is unfortunate.

  6. i think ronin is a bit to well known(now) to get the under rated tag ????

  7. Thanks for stopping by again, glim. I WISH Ronin was that well known, but I feel like I still get blank stares when I mention it in some places!

    In any case, though, I mean to qualify them not as "unknown" but "underrated". In the case of Ronin, both its Metacritic (67%) and RT (57%) ratings are way too low, in my opinion. As such, I'm calling it an underrated movie.

  8. I have never seen this.

    But I know OF it.

    So it would be inappropriate of me to comment.

    But DAMN...

    Doesn't NATASCHA McELHONE have thoroughly awesome hair?

  9. It's never inappropriate for anyone to comment. I mean if you said it was terrible without having seen it, that would be one thing, but you're not saying that.

    Did you watch her hair in the car chase scene? Right at the 1:24 mark. One of the best shots (I've watched it like 20 times in the last week - can't get enough).

    Apparently she's still doing TV work but I don't think I've seen her in anything since Ronin.

  10. Wow. It's been years since I saw that and I had forgotten how gripping it was. If I recollect clearly, the earlier chase showed one or two innocent pedestrians being flattened, a horrible but naturalistic outcome films almost never show us. Isn't it great that De Niro looks scared, stiffly holding the steering wheel at full arm's length, as if the extra three inches of space between him and the cars roaring at him would make a difference? And the brief shot of motorists waving angry fists out their car windows as Bob and Natasha go rocketing past -- very French! Bu is it as good as "To Live and Die in L.A.'s" epic freeway chase?

  11. I really liked this when I came out, but I haven't seen it since. I remember it being surprisingly bloodthirsty in terms of civilian casualties (and spoilers spoilers spoilers the ending).

  12. Thanks, mrcolleen, for stopping by and leaving such great thoughts. I'm glad I was able to refresh this one for you. You and MovieMan are absolutely right - the body count for this includes civilians (the guy shot in the car here, for example), and it was another hallmark of the criticism against the film. The first chase and shootout is pretty chaotic, but I don't think anyone is actually hit by a car - from my memory. In any case, isn't that reality? These things don't happen a lot in real life, but when they do the casualties almost always include innocents. It's terrible, but it's true, and I think it adds to Ronin, not detracts from it.

    De Niro at the wheel is hilarious, but I love it. I love how straight-faced he and Reno are throughout the whole thing, like they're on a Sunday morning drive. Reno is just great, those little looks of disbelief as they make it through close-call after close-call.

    Haha, the French fists are also a great find. Man, every time I watch this chase (and I've seriously been watching it over and over - I could probably drive the streets with my eyes closed) I find something new to appreciate about it. It's one of the best choreographed movie sequences I've ever seen. Hundreds of people and cars in the middle of a city, explosions, crashes, etc. All by design - incredible.

    So here's where I admit I haven't seen To Live and Die in L.A. (outside of the great Tupac video of the same-titled song). It's been on repeat recently on an Encore channel and I've seen the chase on some ten best lists, but unfortunately I've missed it. I will keep an eye for it, though.

  13. Daniel,

    Last thing I remember seeing McElhone in was Soderbergh's "Solaris" which made PERFECT use of her large, beautiful eyes. She fits exactly what my vision of a maybe-dead-maybe-not-space-nymph looks like! Now she's toiling away on "Californication", a show I've tried to get into but just can't.


    Just exquisite: wild, sexy, beautifully acted.

    For the record, I HAVE seen TO LIVE & DIE IN LA. It's so harsh and gritty it can be a hard sit. People in one of the most beautiful cities in the world - with all that glorious sunshine - trying to claw their way up from the bottom to the middle.

    And failing A LOT.

    But that car chase is something else.

    EASILY Top 5 material...

  15. Haha, Joseph, nice description. Well I did see Solaris years ago but have tried my best to block it out of my memory. Ugh, I'm sure Clooney and Soderbergh aren't too proud of that one either.

    And Laurel Canyon - man I need to make an effort to revisit that. I think I only saw the first 10 minutes, but with THAT cast...


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