Some jobs are something that you do. Some jobs, however, are something that you are. And the problem with those lines of work is when your employer inevitably cuts you loose, you don’t just lose your meal ticket, you lose your sense of purpose. Such is the theme of Ronin, John Frankenheimer’s next-to-last feature film, a masterfully executed thriller about out-of-work spies, rich in technique and atmosphere.
The story takes place in the late 1990s, in France. There, an American ex-CIA agent named Sam joins with several other former spies and special ops folks for a job put forth by an Irish operative named Dierdre. The mission is simple: a bunch of shady folks are going to sell a mysterious steel briefcase to some other shady folks, and Dierdre wants Sam and the crew to intervene and steal the case. Since everybody will be heavily armed, this won’t be easy, but the mercenaries Dierdre has assembled are all seasoned veterans at the black bag game, and manage to successfully bushwhack the convoy carrying the case. But the problem with high-stakes heists is that there’s no honor among thieves, especially if they’re all career spies who lie and double-cross for a living. Soon everybody finds themselves on different sides as factions compete for the case in a twisting, turning struggle that turns the better part of France into a grand battleground in which these ex-spooks wage the kind of shadowy bloodshed on each other that used to be routine during the Cold War. Now, it’s all for a payday, but that doesn’t make anybody feel less alive. For spies like these, who no longer have any master to serve, it’s better to die chasing after something you don’t even understand than for nobody to want your skills at all. Such is the life of a ronin.
Ronin is not a movie that makes a particularly deep statement about good and evil, loyalty or treachery, or lies and truth. This movie is really about as superficial as it gets; a plot to steal a case, the plot goes sideways, everybody runs around trying to get the drop on each other. In less able hands, with less able actors, it would be a completely forgettable potboiler spy flick. What elevates it, however, is pure technique. Director Frankenheimer, who lived in France for many years, knows exactly how to conjure the kind of atmosphere that reminds you why so many espionage movies are set in Paris, with its winding streets, moody nights, and rain-slicked surfaces. Ronin’s cast of mercenaries and thieves—all ably played by Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgård—feel like they’ve got a much richer back story to be told, but their present activities don’t provide any opportunities for it, so we only get teasing glimpses of who these people are beneath their steely professional surfaces. Ronin comes this close to having characters with no character at all, but instead, it leaves the audience deeply interested in folks they hardly know anything about. That is not an easy thing to pull off. (Tip of the hat to David Mamet’s uncredited screenwriting.)
The plot is likewise an expert assemblage of tropes from a hundred other thrillers: back-alley gunfights, a MacGuffin everybody’s fighting over, double-crosses and secret identities, a team comprised of specialists, intervening Russians, snipers in the shadows, squealing tires, and more. So much of the storyline feels lifted from other stories that it would feel completely derivative if it didn’t all fit together with surgical precision. In stitching together the ultimate composite spy story, Frankenhemier creates something monster that is stronger, more attractive, and more self-aware than the things from which it was derived.
A theme that puts fire in the belly of Ronin is the notion of how its mercenary characters are riding out what one of the Biblically refers to as their “seven fat years and seven lean years.” When war is your business, eventually you’ve got to find work during peacetime. And while these operators are all angling for a pretty nice payday, one can’t help but think—especially on repeated viewings—that this whole thing happens between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror, between the invention of the World Wide Web and the proliferation of the modern information technology age. In many ways, Ronin feels like the last hurrah of a bygone spy movie from a bygone spy era, using bygone cinematic discipline (no CGI, no 360 slo-mo, no splashy soundtrack). Like its characters, this movie teeters on the cusp of irrelevancy, but maintains its balance through a combination of still-sharp skills, ruthless efficiency, and an iron will to survive. That demands respect.
All of this coalesces in a pair of car chase scenes that are among the finest ever seen. The first occurs early in the film and involves an Audi, Citroen and Mercedes hooning their way through the ever-narrowing streets of Paris, where no fruit cart is safe. Apart from the driving virtuosity on display, the scene features a number of familiar car chase tropes that get every audience anticipation out of the way. That clears the path for the second chase scene, an epic matter that involves everyday cars (a BMW and Peugot rather than two six-figure supercars), more than 300 stunt drivers, an extended sequence where our players drive the wrong way down the highway and through a tunnel, and nothing more than old-fashioned stunt work and practical effects. There’s a reason why McElhone and DeNiro look like they’re about to lose their lunch throughout the chase. Even when riding shotgun with an Indy car driver who’s really piloting your car, seeing so many headlights coming toward you will make anybody think, Am I really being paid enough for this? Probably not, but like their characters, they took the job anyway. And who can blame them? Have we never done the same ourselves? On a long enough timeline, we all become ronin.