Ronin: The Things I Do for Money

In this episode of Saturday Night at the Movies, we’ve got a little bit of self-indulgence going on. Tonight’s film is Ronin, the 1998 ensemble-cast action/thriller led by Robert DeNiro — the stoic anti-hero.

Blu-Ray cover art featuring Robert DeNiro with face filter treatment.
Blu-Ray cover art featuring Robert DeNiro with face filter treatment.

DeNiro plays Sam, a taciturn former spook who, as part of an assembled team of mercs, is tasked to snatch a briefcase from a small group of undefined adversaries. Jean Reno (The Professional), Natasha McElhone (The Truman Show), Stellan Skarsgard (Thor), and Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) are a few of the actors on hand in this effort.

So, the briefcase is much-coveted, but the contents (just like Pulp Fiction) remain a mystery. On the one hand, you might get frustrated not knowing what all the fuss is about. Conversely, the nothingness of the briefcase emphasizes that Ronin is driven by characters — the briefcase is simply a means to get the players interacting.

I enjoy the film from start to finish, but am especially fond of the opening act, where the team assembles, and they start the process of planning the snatch. I’ve previously written the same about The Dogs of War; I do love the logistics of these types of enterprises. In the case of Ronin, there’s an especially fun scene where the team attempts to buy their armaments from some dodgy French guys down by the river Seine.

This is a fine time to talk about Sean Bean. Probably most well-known for his role in season one of The Game of Thrones, back in the late ’90s Bean would have been a much lesser light. His relative anonymity helped make him appear like a nobody twat. His character, Spence, may or may not be ex-military, but he allows the team to believe he’s ex 22nd SAS. He’s a loud-mouth “weapon’s man” who, famously, gets ambushed by a cup of coffee after almost ending up as “a bit of raspberry jam”. Just like Ned Stark, he doesn’t stick around long, but he’s real treat throughout the opening act.

Ronin Boathouse at Hereford
Ambush tactics 101.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, Ronin makes an obvious, and successful attempt to harken back to thrillers of Yore. The same can be said of The American, and in both cases, there is an emphasis on pacing and temperament. Though you might not think about it on first blush (note the pun) a stand-out element in Ronin is desaturation. In the DVD commentary, Frankenheimer talks about using the DeLuxe CCE process to increase the darks and lessen the brightness of the colours.

Ronin movie - planning at hereford table
Look at all those dreary coats and stainless cups.

Frankenheimer also limits the wardrobe to neutrals and goes so far as to hide any overt colours found on location by draping things over them. The result is a film that feels a bit dreary and moves along at a pace that is considered and deliberate, not adrenaline-fuelled.

Well, that ain’t really true. Ronin is known for some of the best car chases out there. Perhaps (?) it’s been trumped by the Bourne franchise in that regard, but at the time, and to this day, the chases through Paris and around Nice are a true pleasure to behold. All of the chases were done practically — no greenscreen etc. — with Frankenheimer going so far as to hire a French Formula 1 driver for some of the film’s greatest hits (again, pun intended).

The chase scenes are great for many occasions: Rainy days, late nights or, according to James King, of, “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my 29 years on this earth, it’s that the best hangover cure in the world is immersing yourself in the 6 minutes that is the [Paris] car chase from Ronin.”

One more item of note is Frankenheimer’s decision to shoot much of the film wide-angle and with a depth of focus. The result is that the team is often crammed into the frame, creating, if not claustrophobia, then at least a sense of enclosure. The depth of field flattens the picture and allows for activity to be seen in fore, mid, and background, which means there are always multiple things to watch, even in dialogue-heavy scenes.

Robert De Niro wielding a Sig Rifle in Ronin.
What you got here is some quality Sig action.

This review is a bit of a love letter, but here’s something that, twenty years on, still bothers me. Within the team’s arsenal is an FN Minimi/M249/C9. The first time I watched the film I was stoked to see the C9 (I’m Canadian, so forgive me for not calling it “The SAW”) put through its paces. But man, was I crest-fallen to see it used more or less as an assault rifle. C’mon, gimme some good, long bursts Sam! Where’s the firebase?! But nope, just a few lil’ burps and then we never see the LMG again. I know, I know, Sam is employing good fire discipline, but it still seems like a missed opportunity.

The firearms and other systems tend, as expected, towards European models. Lots of Walthers, Glocks, and Berettas, in addition to the FNs and a personal favourite, the Sig SG 551. Conversely, Sam, who’s American, waxes a bit nostalgic for the M1911 (and rightly so) in one of his verbal takedowns of Spence. And speaking of Bean’s character, “Mr. Raspberry Jam” does some hilarious work with an MP5K, sort of pushing it at his targets with each burst, presumably as a way to solidify his status as a complete poser.

There’s so much more to go on about. The famous, “what colour is the boathouse at Hereford” line is probably the most well-known part of Ronin, and there is the lovely dynamic between Sam and the model maker Jean-Pierre, played with the usual grace by the late Michael Lonsdale of Day of The Jackal and Munich fame. Let’s just pause on that for a second and consider spending half a day watching Lonsdale in three absolutely top-notch action/thrillers.

Robert De Niro and Michael Lonsdale in Ronin
Lonsdale in Ronin.
Michael Lonsdale in Munich
…In Munich
Michael Lonsdale in Day of the Jackal
… and The Day of The Jackal.

Ohhh yeah…

Anyway, yes. Ronin is at its best when the characters are getting to know each other, or jousting with each other, over a gut wound, a smoke, or a cup of coffee. Plus, it features some of the best car chases since Bullit. All this, and I haven’t even talked about ice skating.

Scott Waters escaped the North of England as a child and has lived in the occasionally frozen/occasionally fecund land of Canada since then. An epigrammatically jocose former Canadian Infantry soldier who got himself some "higher education", he became an artist and writer. These days he does some work with aid groups, dips his toes in the Army while continuing to dip his toes in art and writing. There is a general "toe-dipping" theme.

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