At the movies: Rewatching Ronin

In his college yearbook, filmmaker John Frankenheimer earned the title “Highway Menace.” He kept a customized Mercedes-Benz 600 SL convertible originally built for the sultan of Brunei in his garage, alongside an S-Class sedan, and Car and Driver editor Brock Yates deemed him a “quintessential car nut.” And like Ronin artist Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale), Frankenheimer loved miniatures and had commissioned a Parisian model maker to create hundreds of super-detailed miniature cars, all Ferraris and Porsches in 1/43rd scale. Roger Ebert wrote of John Frankenheimer and his collection: “He had assembled and painted the cars himself, he said; watching his face, as the light bounced out from the display cases, I saw not a hobbyist but a dreamer for whom these perfect little cars represented an ideal world.” He knew every car’s story. It’s as if John Frankenheimer had been preparing his whole life to make the perfect car-chase film with Ronin, his love letter to racing and cars.

Ronin is a taut thriller concerning mercenaries who are left without purpose and without masters after the end of the Cold War. Natascha McElhone plays Deirdre, an Irish woman who assembles a team on behalf of her secretive superior, rogue Irish terrorist Seamus O’Rourke (Jonathan Pryce). The film boasts a screenplay written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet, and a killer cast: Robert De Niro as Sam, a mysterious professional who claims he’s ex-CIA; Jean Reno as French gunman Vincent; Stellan Skarsgård as Gregor, a German computer specialist with KGB ties; Sean Bean, an English weapons specialist; and Skipp Sudduth as Larry, the team’s driver. Their mission is to retrieve a silver case, its contents unknown. Ronin is film of intrigue, double-crosses, great dialogue, gunfights, and, most importantly, a few of the best car chases ever put on film.

Ronin BMW headlights on

“We didn’t use any of that computer shit,” Frankenheimer once bragged about Ronin. “Everything you see, we really did.” Ronin’s three car chases build in intensity as the story progresses. The first chase takes place after a gun buy gone bad—the sellers ambush the team with a sniper in a tunnel beneath Pont Alexandre III, and the team beat a hasty exit. This is when a weapons specialist played by Sean Bean exits, shockingly alive, after proving useless during the encounter. This chase features a nitrous-boosted Audi S8, which was driven by Jean-Pierre Jarier down Paris’s rain-slick city streets.

The second chase kicks off in Nice when the team steals the case after an ambush. This chase and the film’s third chase were both carefully storyboarded. Aside from some unfortunate CGI smoke at the end of a tire burnout, this is an impeccable chase. Frankenheimer explains on the film’s commentary that it was done “not in process, not in green screens, not with computer tricks.” And the cars are going at speed, even down narrow streets. It’s not just fruit stands that get destroyed as they race through the cit —in Ronin, violence has a cost, and the bystander body count is high.

Several cars were right-hand drive models fitted with fake steering wheels on the left-hand side so that the actors could pretend to drive—and try not to have heart attacks—as stunt drivers towed them along. Though the actors took professional racing classes, the fear on their faces is real. In Action and Abstraction in Ronin, Stephen Prince explains: “The actual drivers were professional Formula One drivers, but specialty rigs—some with right-hand driving mounts and others that were an automobile cutaway towed by a professional driver in a high performance car—enabled De Niro, Pryce, and the other actors to be inside the vehicles as they sped through narrow French streets at more than 100 miles per hour.”

Ronin’s famous centerpiece chase is an eight-minute ride through Paris. Sam and Vincent drive a Peugeot 406 and pursue Deirdre, Seamus, and Gregor in an E34 BMW 5 Series. They had 4 BMWs and 5 Peugeots on hand in case these cars were destroyed (80 cars total were wrecked during the making of Ronin). The chase features 300 stunt drivers, including Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier, and high-performance drivers and Le Mans winners Jean-Claude Lagniez and Michel Neugarten. Every chase was carefully rehearsed and choreographed with the help of stunt coordinator Joe Dunne.

In Ronin, characters’ loyalties are constantly shifting. In the first chase, the team eludes the police after being ambushed by arms dealers. In the second chase, the team works together, but ultimately Gregor goes rogue and betrays his team. In the third, Deirdre, Sam’s boss and love interest, turns against him, but it’s Vincent’s friendship with Sam that we have invested in emotionally, and he joins Sam in the passenger seat. This is the most intense, kinetic of the chases, the one that feels the most dangerous. Deirdre loses a police car in the tunnel in a dramatic way: it hits the center divider, explodes. She heads the wrong way down the tunnel, Sam follows. They cause pileups, distress construction workers, they almost hit a bus. She knocks a motorcyclist off his bike. Seamus starts shooting at the Peugeot, destroying Sam’s sideview mirror, so Vincent blows out one of Deirdre’s tires, sending her careening off a bridge.

Ronin citroen
Ronin car crash

Ronin’s chases reflect tensions between characters, and a character’s driving style reflects who they are: Deirdre is reckless, and Sam is polite, conscientious: he even flashes his lights and honks his horn to warn other drivers. Frankenheimer’s attention to detail shows in every aspect of the chase: we actually see drivers put on their seat belts and flash their high beams. A six-cylinder engine actually sounds like a six-cylinder engine, and gearboxes make sense (as opposed to, say, the impossible gearboxes of The Fast and the Furious). The chase even looks sequential. Whereas most chases are shot street by street, Ronin’s chases feel fluid, as if you could follow it on a map. The only score is the sound of engines humming and revving, squealing tires, the music of the road.

John Frankenheimer once described his filmmaking style as “semi-documentary,” and his use of reduced saturation, wide-angles, and depth of field all help contribute to Ronin’s “heightened reality.” Cinematographer Robert Fraisse explained, “John wanted this movie to appear [on-screen] almost like reportage, as if we had shot things that were really happening.” Everything we see in this chase feels plausible, and dangerous. It predated today’s CGI-heavy chases, and we might not have the Bourne franchise without it. The dialogue, cinematography, philosophy, and especially its thrilling car chases, meld into a terse poetry for which Ronin will long be remembered.

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