Ronin (1998)

Director:  John Frankenheimer
Cast:  Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Pryce.
Plot:  A freelancing former US intelligence agent tries to track down a mysterious package that is wanted by both the Irish and the Russians.

Genre:  Action / Crime / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  122min
Rating:  PG for strong violence and some language.

“All good things come to those who wait.”

There are no masterless samurais in this action vehicle.  But there is Robert De Niro who plays Sam, a contract killer who with a makeshift team of trained armed men, plans to ambush a convoy and steal a metal case containing a mysterious package.

What is exactly in that metal case?  Nobody really knows, but as long as it sets the plot wheels turning, nobody really cares.  The great Hitchcock calls this a MacGuffin. Roger Ebert suspects that it could be the briefcase from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), but I shall reserve my judgment on that claim.

Like J.J. Abrams' Mission: Impossible III (2006), Ronin is constructed on the basis of a MacGuffin, and has its highest action point somewhere past the midway mark.

This narrative structure has a serious flaw - the climax, while neatly executed, pales in comparison with the film's key action sequence, which incidentally is the highlight of the entire film, and represents one of the most exciting car chases ever shot without the aid of special effects in the history of the medium.  It is by no accident (pardon the pun) that Ronin always finds itself in any Top 10 list of best car chases of all time.

Jean Reno (Leon: The Professional, 1994) stars opposite De Niro.  Although that's a tantalizing casting prospect, the result is not particularly spectacular.  The performances are adequate, though De Niro has a splendid scene that sees him use a cup of coffee in an unexpected way.

There is no clear villain in Ronin as the narrative consists of its fair share of sharp turns, double-crossings, and hidden agendas.  The entire film feels like a fragmented and unpredictable drama with car chases and street gunfights inserted to sustain its pacing.

John Frankenheimer, an action-thriller veteran who made some memorable films back when Hitchcock was still around, including The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Train (1964), knows how to build his film up in suspenseful ways before an action set-piece.

The lengthy but suspenseful prologue in Ronin where nothing quite happens is a well-crafted statement of intent by Frankenheimer.  It goes to show that you don't need spectacular action scenes to engage the audience right from the start.

In an old-school way, Ronin also uses heavy brass and percussion (with the odd drum set kicked in) to underscore the thrilling car chases.

Ronin is an effective action-thriller, different from the usual Hollywood genre film.  It is shot with considerable skill, and although it is not the best of its kind, it delivers a car chase sequence that you will watch over and over again... with seatbelts on.

Verdict: A notch above the average action-thriller and features one of the most suspenseful car chase sequences of all time.


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