Ronin (1998)
April 25, 2016 2:06 AM - Subscribe

A freelancing former US intelligence agent tries to track down a mysterious package that is wanted by both the Irish and the Russians.

Ronin is a 1998 American spy action-thriller film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce. Written by David Mamet (under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) from a screenplay by first-time writer John David Zeik, the film centers on a team of hired ex-special operatives trying to steal a mysterious and heavily-guarded briefcase while navigating a maze of shifting loyalties and alliances. The film is noted for its realistic car chases through Nice and Paris and its convoluted plot involving the briefcase as a MacGuffin. (wikipedia)

• The original screenplay for Ronin was written by John David Zeik, a newcomer to the film industry. According to Zeik's attorney, David Mamet was brought in just prior to production to expand De Niro's role, and that his contributions were minor. In addition to enlarging De Niro's role, Mamet added a female love interest and rewrote several scenes. According to Frankenheimer, however, Mamet's contributions were far more significant: "The credits should read: 'Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet.' We didn't shoot a line of Zeik's script.” When he learned that he would have to share the screenwriting credits with Zeik, Mamet insisted he be credited under the pseudonym Richard Weisz.

• Frankenheimer chose French cinematographer Robert Fraisse to help him achieve the look and style he envisioned for the film.

Ronin is notable for a number of car chases, the last being a particularly lengthy one through the streets and tunnels of Paris; some scenes used up to 300 stunt drivers according to the DVD director commentary. Car work has been a specialty of Frankenheimer, a former amateur racing driver, ever since his 1966 film Grand Prix.

• Several cars are used in the chases, including an Audi S8 D2, a Peugeot 406, three Peugeot 605s, a Citroën XM, a BMW 535i E34 and Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9, a rare Mercedes-Benz W116 variant with a high-powered engine, as noted by Frankenheimer in the DVD. Most famously, a 1998 Audi S8 quattro, portrayed as stolen to order and then fitted with a nitrous oxide power-booster, is chosen for its bulk, grip and torque and driven in Paris and Nice by Sudduth's character. As a result, the car was rated 9th in Car magazine's Top 40 Coolest Movie Cars.

• To make it look like Robert De Niro and Natascha McElhone were actually driving during the car chase, right hand drive cars were used, with the passenger side made up to mirror the real controls. The actors then mimicked the stunt drivers movements.

• Jean-Claude Lagniez, the car stunt coordinator, supervised approximately 150 stunt drivers for various sequences in Ronin. They drove at speeds up to 120 miles per hour (190 km/h), and 80 cars were intentionally wrecked during the course of the production.

• The reference to the "man in the wheelchair" is referencing the book "The Bourne Identity" (1980) by Robert Ludlum; not the 2002 movie. The Man In The Wheelchair was M. Chernak, a mercenary broker that Jason Bourne killed.

Ronin received generally positive reviews from critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 68% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on a sample of 60 reviews, with an average score of 6.3/10. Many reviewers, like Janet Maslin of The New York Times, praised the cast and Frankenheimer's trademark chase scenes. Roger Ebert praised the "skill and silliness" of the movie, while noting: "The movie is not really about anything; if it were, it might have really amounted to something, since it comes pretty close anyway. Todd McCarthy of Variety called it "a pleasurable throwback". In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films. Ronin was listed at 72nd place on this list.

• The melancholic Ronin theme is played with an Armenian doudouk.

• Two of the actors later play fathers of main characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: Jonathan Pryce who plays Governor Swan, Elizabeth's father and Stellan Skarsgård who plays Will Turner's father.

• Three of the actors from this film played villains in 007 films: Sean Bean in GoldenEye (1995), Michael Lonsdale in Moonraker (1979) and Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

• Vincent (Jean Reno) is the only mercenary that uses only one gun throughout the movie: a Beretta 92FS Inox.

• Porn star Ron Jeremy flew to Paris to film a small part in the film that was eventually cut by the studio.

• Sean Bean claims to be an S.A.S. veteran based in Hereford. In Bravo Two Zero (1999), Bean plays an S.A.S sergeant and mentions that Hereford is his home base. Hereford (on the England/Wales border) is the site of the S.A.S. regimental headquarters, known as Stirling Lines.

• Sean Bean does not die in this film.

“What’s color of the boathouse at Hereford?”


This movie is a selection of the Shut Up And Drive! club.
posted by valkane (44 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Shut Up And Drive! will be screening this feature tonight, April 25, @ 9:00 pm ET. Click here to watch.
posted by valkane at 2:08 AM on April 25, 2016

The film probably suffered at the box office because the chase scenes through Paris were too soon after the Death of Princess Di after a high speed chase by paparazzi through Paris.
posted by humanfont at 3:54 AM on April 25, 2016

I love the mercenaries' reptilian efficiency. And the astonishing but un-tarted-up car chases that stay just this side of unbelievable.
posted by whuppy at 6:22 AM on April 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

This cast was great and it was timed just before DeNiro stopped giving a shit.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:01 AM on April 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

. . . DeNiro stopped giving a shit

What a loss, eh? That low-key, cold-blooded, presence. *shiver*
posted by whuppy at 7:31 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

This cast was great and it was timed just before DeNiro stopped giving a shit.

Wow, it really is the dividing line. From IMDB, in reverse chronological order:
Meet the Parents
Men of Honor
The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle
Analyze This
Great Expectations
Jackie Brown
Wag the Dog
Cop Land
Marvin's Room
Sure, he made some stinkers before and some decent-enough-stuff-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing after, but damn.
posted by Etrigan at 7:50 AM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love this movie. One thing I've always wondered about, however, is at the beginning of the film when he stashes his gun behind a crate in the back of the pub. He says something like "I never go into a place where I don't know how I'm coming out". Did he stash his gun there because he thought he'd be searched, and his gun taken from him?

posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:11 AM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

This movie provides a weird experience where during some of the driving scenes I find myself jolted out of the movie but even more involved because I get worried for the stunt drivers because holy shit.

Also so many points for the conversations that must have gone like this:

Q: In this scene the characters are supposed to be driving through Paris streets at about 90MPH. How are we gonna do that? Undercrank? Green screen somehow?
A: I thought it might work to put them in cars that were going 100MPH down Paris streets. This will properly motivate our actors.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:54 AM on April 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Did he stash his gun there because he thought he'd be searched, and his gun taken from him?

He didn't know it wasn't a setup by the authorities, so he went in without his gun to check. If it was a setup by bad guys, his having one gun would be only slightly more useful than having no gun, because they would just kill him as soon as he walked in.

He unlocked the back door to make sure he could get out, possibly to retrieve his gun once he knew that he wasn't going to get rolled up as soon as he walked in, but the male bartender saw him, so he reverted to his cover.
posted by Etrigan at 8:57 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I get worried for the stunt drivers because holy shit.

There's a bit in the director's (?) commentary on the DVD where they're talking about how the stunt guys would say, "Okay, I'm going to skid to right about here..." and every time, they were right smack on that point.
posted by Etrigan at 8:59 AM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Sean Bean does not die in this film

He is, however, cut dead.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:20 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Absolutely one of my all-time favorite films. It is a 70s cold war flick transported to the post-cold-war 90s. A bunch of disposable assets running around Europe with nothing much to do but figure out where the next meal comes from. There aren't any sides anymore, so this week you're working with someone from the CIA and next week with an ex-Stasi. No one can be trusted. There's a real deep paranoid vein running through the whole picture.

Also, for a very steroidal time, DeNiro's character is pleasantly post-macho. That line about wanting to save his skin because it covers his body? Great line, even better delivery. (The story about the grasshopper is priceless.)

Everything I know about how not to act when I feel like an imposter is thanks to Sean Bean's character.
posted by aureliobuendia at 9:54 AM on April 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, I just want to point out that what should, by all rights, be a dead scene right smack in the middle of the movie -- some guy we haven't seen before tells a story about fucking samurai -- is elevated by Michael Lonsdale to a ridiculous degree.
posted by Etrigan at 10:17 AM on April 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

I recommend this movie to people all the time. It is so, so, so quotable—Aliens-level quotable. And furthermore (from memory):
  • "I'm leakin'."
  • "What do you favor? Weapons-wise?" "I dunno, it's a toolbox." (Always applicable in the perennial "What's your favorite programming language" conversation.)
  • "I'm sure it'll be here tomorrow." "Oh, I'm sure too."
But I do have a question: what's the origin of the phrase "fucked into a cocked hat", exactly? I'm having trouble visualizing it.
posted by The Tensor at 10:44 AM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

"The only thing is that the map, the map is not the territory."

This is straight out of military training.
posted by Etrigan at 10:47 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Okay, now that I've watched it again at my desk:

In the last scene:
Sam: "Hmm?"
Vincent: "I'm sorry."
Sam: "You said something."
Vincent: "I said, she would not be coming back here."

We were listening to them, and we didn't hear Vincent say it the first time. Just the score, underneath a shot of some not-Deirdre woman walking into the bar. I never noticed that before.
posted by Etrigan at 11:09 AM on April 25, 2016

There are two jarring things wrong with this film.

1. There is some awful smoke-from-tires CGI when the team first acquires the target en route.
2. There is a shot that has a superimposed black matte indicating it's from binoculars or something similarly telescopic, but the shot itself was done with a wide lens.

Both of them jar me out of the movie harshly. The ease with which I sink right back in is a testament to the talent of everyone involved in the making of this film.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:07 PM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

DeNiro's character is pleasantly post-macho.

That is the first time that anyone has said that ever about a (male) Mamet character.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 12:25 PM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's been a while since I've watched this. I imagine that if I had first seen this on TV, I would remember it as one long car chase.
posted by ZeusHumms at 2:24 PM on April 25, 2016

I love Jean Reno in this movie so much. When I was in Paris I insisted on visiting the cafe/staircase (which is near the Sacre Coeur) so I could get some pictures of myself being a moody Ronin.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 2:52 PM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Such a great film. The last time DeNiro fired on all cylinders. And let's be honest, he was only ever a V8 to begin with, and a cylinder has died with every film since, so now he's just an engine block in a cold, rusty chassis.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:17 PM on April 25, 2016

Though it manages to find its own style and is quite successful in that, I'm convinced that Ronin owes a fair bit to Reservoir Dogs. Which possibly makes it a very rare phenomenon -- a film which owes its existence to the mid-90s wave of Reservoir Dogs imitations which nevertheless manages to be enjoyable to watch and not completely forgettable.

There really isn't much depth here. But it's carried along by a good cast and strong characterization and paced well enough that you don't notice the weaknesses before you reach the end of the movie.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:21 PM on April 25, 2016

Sorry, dude, but I don't think you got it straight there. Maybe Quentin Tarantino owes a little something to David Mamet. I know he owes a lot to Elmore Leonard. So. Dogs was all existential new wave french, so I can see where you might conflate the two. Ronin was all mercs seen thru the lens of no more cold war.

Which is maybe the depth you're missing.
posted by valkane at 7:42 PM on April 25, 2016

If you like moviemakers and movie watchers talking about good films, I highly recommend the Someone Else's Movie podcast by NOW Magazine film critic Norm Wilner. Here's his discussion about Ronin.

A key point hey make is that this is pretty much the last great car chase film done without the benefit of CGI.

I love the bit where Reno makes friends with the security guard, then can't knock him out.
posted by dry white toast at 8:10 PM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ronin is such a fantastic film from literally the first second. The score sets the mood as in a way that very few movies manage. The pacing is on point, the action is good without being over the top, and it sucks you into the world the characters inhabit and refuses to let go. Very, very pretty pictures, too. ;)

The only two problems it has are the somewhat impenetrable script (there is little explanation of a lot of the stuff that is going on, so it's easy to get lost) and the above mentioned terrible tire smoke CGI. The worst part about that last bit is how goddamned unnecessary it is.

Interestingly enough, Ronin was one of the first DVDs I ever rented from Netflix. It was in my first set of four (four was the only option other than the week-long rental option they initially had before they went totally "no late fees"). It stayed in the Netflix DVD rack they sent me (back when Netflix was yellow, not red) and didn't get sent back for literally over four years. It was a flip disc, even, with the letterboxed version on one side and the pan and scan version on the other.

I finally sent it back when I saw a copy in the bargain bin at Best Buy for $7.99 and purchased it. Weird? Perhaps, but it really is that good. Did it ever come out on Blu-Ray? I remember they set a release date and then canceled it, but haven't looked to see what happened since.

So what is the color of the boat house at Hereford?

How the fuck should I know?
posted by wierdo at 8:54 PM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


This would have been a more convincing line if De Niro had been told how to pronounce 'Hereford'. I always want Bean to go "Where? Do your mean Hereford'?" and then realise he can say anything because De Niro obviously doesn't know what he's talking about.
posted by biffa at 11:45 PM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

De Niro already knew. The boat house bit was just to prove it to everyone else. If Bean had called him out on it, De Niro would have pushed his bluff:
"It's pronounced Hereford, and it's blue."
"No it's not. It's white."
(coffee cup)
posted by Etrigan at 3:46 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think I prefer another theory. The scene is meant to show De Niro is also a bullshitter, just a more competent bullshitter than Bean.
posted by biffa at 4:02 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

The scene is meant to show De Niro is also a bullshitter, just a more competent bullshitter than Bean.

I think that De Niro is a bullshitter when the task at hand requires bullshitting. But he's clearly competent at the rest of the job, while Bean is just some poser.
posted by Etrigan at 6:02 AM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's only one man who would dare give me the raspberry: Spence!
posted by I-baLL at 8:09 AM on April 26, 2016

I love this movie and have since I saw it in the theater.

There is a cut scene from the end of the movie that makes the ending much more grim and sad. I don't want to post a spoiler unless you guys want to discuss it. I figured I would give you the opportunity to watch it yourselves if you own the dvd.
posted by Fleebnork at 1:33 PM on April 26, 2016

I was just commenting during last night's screening that I might have preferred a more ambiguous, less upbeat ending, so I'm actually really stoked about this and now I can't wait to get home and check this out, thanks!
posted by MoonOrb at 2:23 PM on April 26, 2016

The alternative ending is not in the slightest tiniest bit ambiguous, so if that's what you're after you might skip it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:40 PM on April 26, 2016

I love how the non-action scenes add to the film. They are necessary to give the characters life, particularly with Mamet's dialogue. If you cut each car chase and shootout from the film you would still be left with something that is better than a typical blockbuster.
posted by Monochrome at 4:42 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

The alternative ending is not in the slightest tiniest bit ambiguous, so if that's what you're after you might skip it.

They made the right call choosing the ending they did over the alternate, now having seen them both.

My nomination for an improvement in the ending, not that one's needed, is that I would have preferred an ending where it was not put out there that depriving Seamus of the briefcase had any meaningful impact on The Troubles. I would have liked an ending that signaled "all of this was for nothing" more than "spies save the day," but I'm not complaining.

I liked the much darker, sadder alternate, too, in a way. Although it certainly doesn't give you the warm fuzzy of basking in the glow of the Sam/Vincent bromance [h/t to valkane].
posted by MoonOrb at 5:47 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

So my understanding was that De Niro was a CIA agent all along. His cover identity was that he was a freelancer, but he is actually on the team because his true employers want to put pressure on Sinn Féin via the case and Seamus. I think it is implied that Jean Reno's character is in the same situation, for a different country's intelligence services, maybe France.
posted by rustcrumb at 10:37 AM on April 28, 2016

I think De Niro and Reno being still-serving agents is heavily implied, but not conclusively.
posted by Etrigan at 11:07 AM on April 28, 2016

I took it that Sam never got out. His being Ronin is his cover.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:54 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

put pressure on Sinn Féin via the case and Seamus

Or the case never really mattered and was just bait to catch Seamus...
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:12 PM on April 28, 2016

a note on hats, cocked.

That's one of the genius things about Mamet: his taking phrases that are almost familiar and turning them into something else.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:35 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am saddened to report that the bar in which Sam meets Vincent, Deirdre, and Larry has been razed, presumably for some new construction project. Right now it's just an empty space next to steps going up the hill in Montmartre.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:21 AM on November 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

What a fun movie! Enjoyed all the car chases, but particularly enjoyed the settings in France. I've been lost in the maze of the amphitheater in Arles too and wish I could have just shot a padlock to escape. The way the scenes fit together make no sense geographically, particularly all the travel around Paris. Ce n'etait pas un Rendezvous. But it still looks terrific. Fun to see car stuntwork like that presented entirely as practical effects, no over the top editing / CGI.

Favorite moment was the bad guy hangout on returning to Paris, the exterior shot. Specifically for the street art. The white figure on the right is definitely by Jérôme Mesnager and I'm not certain but the guy looking up on the left looks something like a Jef Aérosol to me. Those two are some of the more established folks in Paris street art, been working since the 80s, and are totally scene-appropriate. 50/50 whether the art was just there or if the production crew commissioned / faked it.
posted by Nelson at 9:08 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've long loved this movie and was eagerly awaiting Kino Lorber's 4KUHD Blu-ray release (which came out last month, but it took a while to have it shipped on to me as I live outside the US). Highly recommended to anyone reading this who still buys films on physical media. The only incredibly minor "issue" is that a few superfluous subtitles were retained from previous releases (such as "SUPPLIES FOR TAILORS" in the screenshot linked in the preceding comment).

The director's commentary track is the same one from earlier DVD and Blu-ray releases, but I hadn't had an occasion to listen to it and regarding the street art mentioned by Nelson above, Frankenheimer says as Seamus, Deirdre, and Gregor arrive at the Paris safe house (~1:14:54): "I love this location. This graffiti was actually on the walls as you see it."
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 12:44 AM on July 26, 2023 [1 favorite]

Just watched this again. Damn, this is good moviemaking.
posted by lalochezia at 9:58 PM on January 25

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