RONIN —–“Don’t make any sudden moves. Just because we’re buying guns doesn’t mean we didn’t bring any.” Twenty-one years after his last well-received actioner (Black Sunday), director John Frankenheimer returned to form with this terse, grim 1998 chase & shoot thriller.
Post-Cold War Europe. A disparate group of guns-for-hire from several countries (US, France, Britain, Germany) are hired by a cool IRA operative to steal a mystery briefcase from an armed convoy ahead of the competing Russian mafia. Duplicity, honor, skill and ruthlessness battle it out over 121 minutes of intricate French location shooting in Paris, Cannes, Nice, La Turbie, Arles and Villefranche.
From a story by J.D. Zeik, whose script was re-written by David Mamet ((under the pseudonym Richard Wiesz), it succeeds mostly as a directing and editing showpiece, as the writing sags under too many of those patented Mamet exchanges where characters recite the same question line back & forth at each other or are asked to drive something home to the point of parody. When Robert De Niro’s berates Sean Bean with “Draw again. Draw it again. You’re the ace field man. Draw it again. It’s a simple diagram. Just draw it again. Draw what you saw. Draw it again! Draw it again!” you can almost see impressionists salivating. “The De Niro face”, that pinched smile, gets a steady workout in this movie. The other team members include Jean Reno (the French Bob De Niro), Natasha McElhone (neat Irish accent) and Stellan Skarsgård (a master at calm corruption), with Michael Lonsdale and Jonathan Pryce in smaller roles.
It’s a cool group, playing cold folks in a chilly film. Frankenheimer had cameraman Robert Fraisse deliberately dull the color palette, insisting, as Fraisse related “…he didn’t want too many colors, so we avoided colors in the sets, exteriors and costumes as much as we could. Right from the beginning, we decided that we would never see something red. Nobody could be dressed in red, no car could be red — there would never, be anything red in the movie! In fact, he said, ‘I can’t shoot this movie in black-and-white, but I would like to have the least amount of color possible.'”
Well, except for blood, of which a goodly amount is spilled. This is one of those offhandedly brutal action pics that has a high tally of innocent civilian casualties as the good-bad and bad-good guys blast at each other and race at 120 mph through traffic.
Anyway, it’s those action scenes, particularly the sensational car chases, not the flip banter or twaddle about warrior code (ala the Ronin samurai of the title) that are the backbone and drawing card of the enterprise; lengthy, high-risk sequences that Frankenheimer and his 2nd-unit crew deliver like gangbusters. Some 2,200 camera setups were needed to convey the velocity, adrenaline and peril that had 300 stunt drivers wrecking 80 cars in order to help secure their valiant vocation violence front rank placement with the best of the like ever staged.
Minimal music score by Elia Cmiral suggests the existential loneliness of the protagonists chosen line of work. Made for $55,000,000, the grosses coming to $70,697,000. With Skipp Sudduth, Féodor Atkine and Katarina Witt.