March 21, 2017
An Audi S8 sluices through the country roads outside of Nice, running down a trio of anonymous sedans. With the aid of pinpoint braking and navigational support, the Audi sideswipes its final target in the center of the city, taking out an outdoor cafe with it. This brutally exciting sequence halfway through Ronin (1998) typifies its fuel-injected virtues, one in which the cars are the stars just as much as Robert De Niro. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I could still recall the make and model of that Audi S8 before the wheelman (Skipp Sudduth) requests it from his handlers. But while the cars are the main attraction, the rest of the film is a slyly elliptical bit of post-Cold War spycraft, as a group of out-of-work spooks are hired to steal a MacGuffin that both the IRA and the Russians are after (Ronin is streaming on FilmStruck as part of its nine-film series “A Movie History of the IRA”). The script was heavily re-written by David Mamet (credited as Richard Weisz due to WGA wrangling), and the film is filled with his weighted repetitions, tangy slang and allusive phrasing, the ex-agents communicating in code, trying not to give themselves away. As on his 1966 racing film Grand Prix, director John Frankenheimer required all the stunt driving to be done at full speed with no special effects. The results are pleasurably stressful, as reflected in De Niro’s white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel – he was actually in a car going 100mph, with his stunt driver operating the vehicle in the opposite seat.
Ronin came near the end of Frankenheimer’s long and volatile career in Hollywood. It had been a long journey from the live television experiments of Playhouse 90 and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to his infamous The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) remake. He had long battled alcoholism, which crippled his career and his health throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. But it was his return to television that revived his fortunes – he won best director Emmys for Against the Wall (1994), The Burning Season (1995), Andersonville (1996) and George Wallace (1998). These prestige, rather stuffy productions made him a viable name again, and producer Frank Mancuso Jr. offered him the gig on Ronin. Frankenheimer had lived in France and could speak the language, so was considered a natural choice for the movie, which would require a lot of location shooting in Nice and Paris.
The script was written by J.D. Zeik and spruced up by David Mamet. There were conflicting claims about the extent of Mamet’s changes. Frankenheimer told the Los Angeles Times that, “The credits should read: ‘Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet. We didn’t shoot a line of Zeik’s script.” Zeik’s attorney, however, claimed that “Mamet was brought in at the last minute before production to beef up De Niro’s role,” and that the majority of the script was Zeik’s work. Mamet remained silent, and took co-writing credit under the Weisz pseudonym (he only wanted to use his name on scripts he wrote alone). I’m inclined to trust Frankenheimer on this, and the film is filled with scenes that sound like Mamet’s combative slangy dialogue, especially the film’s “getting-the-team-together” first half.
Robert De Niro plays Sam, an ex-CIA operative in need of work. He is recruited by a never-seen “man in a wheelchair” to take part in the heist of a steel case, contents unknown. His fellow heisters include the American wheelman Larry, French materials procurer Vincent (Jean Reno), British weapons trader Spence (Sean Bean) and German computer whiz Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård). Their contact is Deirdre (Natasha McElhone), who doesn’t try to hide her Irish lilt and implied IRA allegiance. Their first attempt to steal the silver case goes haywire, and it leads them to Paris and to the Russian mobster who is also in pursuit. In the grand tradition of Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or Pulp Fiction (1994), the contents of the case are a MacGuffin, an unexplained excuse to keep the story propelling forward.
De Niro is in fine recalcitrant form, his Sam a stubborn bastard who questions the plan at every turn. Like all the other mercenaries, he used to be aligned with a major power and has been cut loose to wander the black spy markets of the world (hence the title, a reference to the story of the 47 Ronin, or masterless samurai). They are all bitter for the loss of direction (and steady paycheck), and so they poke each other for information, responding in riddles. An early exchange between Sam and Gregor goes like:
Gregor: So what brought you here?
Sam: A fellow that doesn’t work so well.
Gregor: The man in the wheelchair? How did he get there?
Sam: Seems to me that was in your neck of the woods back in the late unpleasantness.
None of this is explained or followed up on. The “man in the wheelchair” could be code or a flesh and blood human, and there is no referent for “How did he get there?” Where is there? Is the “late unpleasantness” a reference to the Cold War or a specific mission? Information is restricted from the characters and even more so from the viewers. This allows Ronin to keep its air of mystery, its dialogue obscuring rather than explaining. The most talkative character is a Michael Lonsdale cameo, an eccentric in oversized sweaters and leonine hair, painting mini-samurai in his palatial estate, giving long speeches on the significance of the “ronin,” or masterless samurai. He also is in charge of sopping up Sam’s blood as Vincent removes a bullet from his gut. Like the similar scene in He Walked By Night (1948) I wrote about last week, this sequence is unflinching, focusing on the emergent perspiration on De Niro’s face as Reno digs around in his belly.
While a brutal and memorable entry in the bullet removal scene canon, it’s the car chases that will keep Ronin on clickbait car chase listicles until the end of the internet. Frankenheimer hired French DP Robert Fraisse, who was then best known for his work with Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet ), not exactly an action film resume. But Frankenheimer was impressed with his work on the HBO cop thriller Citizen X (1995), and moved ahead. Fraisse spoke to American Cinematographer about the pre-production conversations: “When we started working on the movie, we talked about the style, and John said, ‘I want a lot of setups, I want the shots to be very short, and I want to work with very short focal lengths,’” Fraisse recalls. “John wanted this movie to appear on screen almost like reportage, as if we shot things that were really happening, so we didn’t want to be too sophisticated. Instead, we tried to convey an ambiance, an atmosphere.”
This short lens “reportage” style carried over to the car chase sequences, which Frankenheimer wanted to run at full speed – he hired stunt drivers from Formula One to push the vehicles to their limit. Since they are used to driving at 180 mph, at 100 mph they were able to pull off astonishing hairsbreadth turns and escapes. In one breathtaking shot, a crash ahead has sent a vehicle spinning, and with no room for error the BMW speeds around the car as if going through a revolving door. I don’t know how many times they had to stage it, though it was reported 80 cars were totaled during production.
The most complicated sequence occurs in Paris, where a BMW and Peugeot are chasing each other down the wrong way of a one-way highway. They had multiple cameras covering each shot, with some mounted on the cars themselves. Fraisse again in American Cinematographer: “Most of the time, we used three or four normal cameras, plus one or two remote crash-box cameras, which were cheap cameras with cheap lenses inside very heavy and resistant metal blimp. With that kind of camera, we got very brief but incredible shots. When you shoot car chases with long focal lengths, you can shoot for 20 seconds, because you see the car far into the depth and you can let it come toward camera. But with very short focal lengths, the cars cross the frame very fast, which I think is a very strong effect. We also shot in Nice, which is an old city in the South of France with very narrow streets, so the shots automatically didn’t last a long time. We needed to shoot many setups to have the continuity of the cars going from one street to another.” That continuity achieved through this chaos is a testament to the talents of Frankenheimer, Fraisse and the editor Tony Gibbs, who conducted these brief flashes across the screen to create a thrilling symphony of destruction.