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.