An Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, and two Americans walk into a bar… But, there’s no joke to tell. In fact, the business at hand is deadly serious. The bar is in Paris, and the men have been called there by a mysterious Irishwoman. We gather they are professionals unknown to one another. Each person in the room exudes an edgy weariness and the tension between them is tight enough to snap at any moment. The movie is the modern classic action thriller, “Ronin” (1998), featured this month on MGM HD.
“Ronin” is director John Frankenheimer’s second-to-last feature, and from the first frame we know we are in the hands of a master at work. As the movie’s title implies, our team is made up of warriors without masters, in this case, former spies and agents of the Cold War. The team, headed by Robert De Niro as the American, Sam, is an international who’s who of stars: including Jean Reno as the Frenchman, Vincent; Stellan Skarsgärd as the German, Gregor; Sean Bean as, the Englishman Spence; and Natasha McElhone as the Irishwoman, Dierdre. Johnathan Pryce, Michael Lonsdale, and Skip Suddeth round out the cast. The screenplay, by David Mamet is a study in spy movie deconstruction. The characters speak in short, coded sentences that, in their elliptical way, reveal glimpses of character.
Sam: “Hell of a time to be working.”
Vincent: “What do you want for Christmas?”
Sam: “My two front teeth.”
Vincent: “May your wish be granted.”
Like many spy thrillers, “Ronin” involves the recovery of a MacGuffin, in this case a silver case, that propels the plot forward. In “Ronin”, the plot is all about the journey. Here, as a counterpoint to the spare dialog, that journey includes lots of action: shootouts between our protagonists and their mysterious antagonists and several elaborate and incredible car chases.
The car chases in “Ronin” are regarded by many as some of the best ever put on film. Frankenheimer himself was a car fanatic, and he took the business seriously. Hundreds of drivers and coordinators orchestrated real cars through the French countryside, small villages, and ultimately through the streets of Paris. While the actors were put through training to appear knowledgeable in the film, they were frequently steering a dummy wheel, while Formula One drivers did the actual driving from the passenger seats.
Grounding the film, is Robert De Niro’s quiet and understated performance as a man barely one step ahead of the action. His on-screen relationships with McElhone and Reno give the movie its emotional core and reminds us that, for all the pyrotechnics, movies are driven by the people with whom we are along for the ride.
So, fasten the seatbelt on your couch and settle in for “Ronin” airing November on MGM HD.