Arrow Video: Ronin (1998) - Reviewed

John Frankenheimer was already a master by the time he made The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds in the mid-1960s and all throughout his career remained among the most technically proficient and visually pioneering filmmakers of the century.  Similar to Sidney Lumet for his distinctive visual style and directness with telling a straightforward story, Frankenheimer peaked early into his career before hitting a slump in the late 1970s as his personal struggles with alcoholism began to affect his work.  Still, the director continued working in both film and television including the Civil War drama Andersonville before inheriting the sinking ship The Island of Dr. Moreau.  After that film’s critical and commercial failure, Frankenheimer quickly needed to clean up the mess left on his resume and it arrived in the form of a fast and loose heist thriller with one of the greatest car chase sequences ever put on film: Ronin.

An ensemble action picture with a rich cast of colorful characters featuring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone and Jonathan Pryce, the premise is exceedingly simple and maybe even beside the point: a team of professional thieves gather in Paris to steal a metallic briefcase from mobsters.  Once set loose, the film becomes less plot driven than a continuous pure flow of characterization, twists and turns replete with double crossings and elegantly staged shootouts.  The beginning and end of the film aren’t nearly as important as the journey there with a film that by all accounts should be run of the mill fluff but Frankenheimer’s craftsmanship reshape the film into a taut genre picture with subtlety and nuance bereft of most cops and robbers actioners today. 

Much like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, the title and premise of Ronin lift from the Japanese designation of a wandering samurai and transpose it into the modern French criminal landscape.  In both films, there’s a genre exercise at play while each picture’s respective director is clearly having way too much fun with the piece.  Performances across the board are of course surprising and strong with De Niro and Reno exuding distant cool amid the chaos while aided by a solid supporting cast.  Mostly though, this is Frankenheimer’s show which is at once a lark and clearly the work of a technically brilliant visual artist as well as an actor’s director.

One of my favorite aspects of Frankenheimer’s contribution to what would become known as the late 1990s action thriller is how modestly he stages the action, keeping everything neatly framed and visible while still keeping his camera close to ground zero.  Take for instance the aforementioned car chase sequence, which was all done practically by the way.  In a succession of painstakingly designed and crafted shots and stuntwork, not since Grand Prix has Frankenheimer’s presentation of the car chase felt so alive and exciting.  Where most action films now take the Paul Greengrass route of shaking the camera every which way or display an overreliance on CGI to augment the action, it’s refreshing to see a time honored master who shows how much more you can do with less and that the destination is usually only half as fun as the journey there.

- Andrew Kotwicki