Ronin (film)

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Ronin movie 1998.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by Frank Mancuso Jr.
Screenplay by
Story by J.D. Zeik
Music by Elia Cmiral
Cinematography Robert Fraisse
Edited by Tony Gibbs
Distributed by
Release dates
  • September 12, 1998 (1998-09-12) (Venice Film Festival)
  • September 25, 1998 (1998-09-25) (USA)
Running time
121 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $55 million
Box office $70,692,101

Ronin is a 1998 American spy thriller action film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce. Written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet, the film is about two of several former special forces and intelligence agents who team up to steal a mysterious, heavily guarded case while navigating a maze of shifting loyalties and alliances. The film is noted for its car chases through Nice and Paris.


At a bistro in the Montmartre district of Paris, a young Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), who is a member of the IRA, meets with Larry (Skipp Sudduth), Vincent (Jean Reno), and Sam (Robert De Niro), all of whom are veterans of Cold War special operations units hired through "the man in the wheelchair". They drive to a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris where Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård) and Spence (Sean Bean) are waiting. The next morning Deirdre briefs the men on their mission: to attack a heavily armed convoy and steal a case, the contents of which are not revealed. Following the briefing, the team begins assembling their equipment and planning the operation. One night while making an arms purchase, the men are ambushed by a sniper beneath the Pont Alexandre III, but in the ensuing gun battle they kill the arms dealers and escape from the police after a high-speed chase through the streets of Paris.

Meanwhile, Deirdre meets with her IRA handler, Seamus O'Rourke (Jonathan Pryce), who reveals that Russian gangsters are bidding for the case, so the team must act quickly to intercept it. After Spence is exposed as a fraud by Sam and summarily dismissed, the others depart for Nice, where they observe the men in possession of the case and form a plan. Sam and Deirdre go to their hotel posing as tourists and learn that the bodyguards are highly professional. Later they stake out their villa, where they avoid being spotted by police by pretending to be lovers kissing—the attraction is not wholly pretense. The next day, Deirdre's team ambush the convoy at La Turbie and pursue the survivors through the surrounding countryside and the Old Town of Nice. After a lengthy car chase and gun battle in the Port of Nice, Gregor betrays the team, steals the case, and disappears.

Gregor tries to sell the case to the Russians, but his contact—his former KGB colleague—betrays him, and Gregor shoots him. He then contacts Mikhi (Féodor Atkine), the leader of the Russian mob, and threatens to sell the case to the IRA unless Mikhi pays a grossly inflated price; Mikhi agrees. Meanwhile, the rest of the team track Gregor through one of Sam's old CIA contacts and corner him in the Arles Amphitheatre where he is meeting Mikhi and one of his men. Following a hectic gunfight, Gregor flees, but is captured by Seamus, who kills Larry and escapes with Deirdre. During the fight, Sam saves Vincent's life, but is wounded in the process. Vincent drives him to a villa in Les Baux-de-Provence owned by his modeler friend Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale). After removing the bullet and allowing Sam time to recuperate, Vincent asks Jean-Pierre to help him locate Gregor, Deirdre, and Seamus.

While Sam recovers, Jean-Pierre tells him the true story of the forty-seven Ronin, a group of samurai who were left leaderless (becoming rōnin) after their feudal lord was betrayed by another man's treachery. After years of silent preparation, these rōnin avenged their master's honor by killing the man who was responsible. In turn, all forty-seven committed seppuku or ritual suicide as they have no purpose left in life after the revenge of their master is taken. Meanwhile, back in Paris, Seamus brutally beats Gregor into admitting that he mailed the case to himself. Days later, as Gregor and Seamus retrieve the case from the post office, Sam and Vincent arrive on the scene and Sam confronts Deirdre. Knowing that Sam has feelings for her and will not execute her, she escapes with Seamus and Gregor. Following a high-speed chase through Paris, Vincent shoots out Deirdre's tires and sends her car over a highway overpass. Gregor emerges from the car with the case and escapes, while Deirdre and Seamus are rescued from the burning vehicle.

Sam and Vincent discover that the case is identical to a type used by figure skaters, and deduces that Gregor received the fake case from the Russians. Through Jean-Pierre's contact, they also learn that the Russians are involved with figure skater Natacha Kirilova (Katarina Witt), who is appearing at Le Zénith arena. That night during her performance, Natacha's Russian mob boyfriend Mikhi meets with Gregor, who reveals there is a sniper in the arena who will shoot Natacha if Mikhi betrays him. Mikhi shoots Gregor anyway, the sniper shoots Natacha, and Mikhi leaves with the case and the money. Sam and Vincent follow the panicked crowd out of the arena in time to see Seamus shoot Mikhi and steal the case. Sam runs ahead and finds Deirdre waiting in the getaway car. He urges her to leave, revealing himself to be an active CIA agent pursuing Seamus, not the case. Seamus shoots his way past the crowd, wounding Vincent, and then heads back to the arena, with Sam in pursuit. In the final gunfight, Seamus is about to kill Sam when he is fatally shot by Vincent.

Sometime later, in the bistro where they first met, Sam and Vincent talk while a radio broadcast announces that a peace agreement was reached between Sinn Féin and the British government, partly as a result of Seamus's death. As Sam looks toward the door expectantly, Vincent tells him that Deirdre would not be coming back. They part, and Sam drives off with his CIA contact. Vincent pays the bill and leaves.




The original screenplay for Ronin was written by J.D. Zeik, a newcomer to the film industry. According to Zeik's attorney, David Mamet was brought in just prior to production to expand De Niro's role, and that his contributions were minor. In addition to enlarging De Niro's role, Mamet added a female love interest and rewrote several scenes.[1] According to Frankenheimer, however, Mamet's contributions were far more significant: "The credits should read: 'Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet.' We didn't shoot a line of Zeik's script."[1] When he learned that he would need to share the screenwriting credits with Zeik, Mamet insisted he be credited under the pseudonym Richard Weisz.[1]


Frankenheimer chose French cinematographer Robert Fraisse to help him achieve the look and style he envisioned for the film. Best known for his work with director Jean-Jacques Annaud—most notably The Lover (1992) and Seven Years in Tibet (1997)—Fraisse impressed Frankenheimer with his work in the police thriller Citizen X (1995), convinced he could handle the more than two thousand individual setups he planned for Ronin.[2] Fraisse learned that the director had a very specific look and style in mind for the film. "I want a lot of setups," Frankenheimer told the cinematographer, "I want the shots to be very short, and I want to work with very short focal lengths." Fraisse would later recall, "John wanted this movie to appear onscreen almost like reportage, as if we had shot things that were really happening, so we didn't want to be too sophisticated. Instead, we tried to convey an ambiance, an atmosphere. Also, he didn't want too many colors, so we avoided colors in the sets, exteriors and costumes as much as we could."[2]

Fraisse's creative use of film stock and lab processing helped achieve this atmosphere for the director. He suggested a special process using Kodak's Vision 500T 5279. Fraisse recalled, "After rating the stock at 250 ASA, which overexposed it one stop, we then underdeveloped it, reducing the contrast and desaturating the colors. I also knew that we were going to shoot in France during the winter, when it gets dark at 5 o'clock. I needed to be able to shoot as late as possible, so I made the decision to use the 500 ASA stock for the whole movie. ... Very often, I was shooting at almost full aperture—T2.3 or 2.5."[2]

Fraisse used a variety of cameras to facilitate the director's ambitious photographic demands, including Panaflexes for dialogue scenes, Arriflex 435s and 35-IIIs for the car-chase sequences, and the Steadicam. "Aside from the car chases, we used the Steadicam for half the shots in the movie,"[2] Fraisse remembered. "John uses the Steadicam the way others would use a normal camera. It's faster and more convenient than putting down rails and dollies—as long as you have a really good camera operator. Fortunately, I had a great Steadicam operator in David Crone."[2] Having worked with Frankenheimer on three previous films, Crone impressed the cinematographer with his strength and ability to keep the camera stable during physically challenging sequences, as well as his "incredible sense of framing".[2]

Car chases[edit]

Ronin is notable for a number of car chases, the last being a particularly lengthy one through the streets and tunnels of Paris; some scenes used up to 300 stunt drivers according to the DVD director commentary. Car work has been a specialty of Frankenheimer, a former amateur racing driver,[3] ever since his 1966 film Grand Prix. Although action sequences are often shot by a second unit director, Frankenheimer did all these himself, and sometimes rode along. While he was aware of the many innovations in digital special effects since then, he elected to film all these sequences live, to obtain the maximum level of authenticity. To further this, many of the high-speed shots have the actual actors in the cars. Skipp Sudduth did nearly all of his own driving, while other cars were right hand drive models with stunt drivers driving - crashes were handled by a stuntman. To lend additional authenticity, the sound recordist re-recorded many of the vehicles in the chases to ensure that during the editing, the right sounds were dubbed in for each vehicle.

Several cars are used in the chases, including an Audi S8 D2, a Peugeot 406, three Peugeot 605s, a Citroën XM, a BMW M5 E34 and Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9, a rare Mercedes-Benz W116 variant with a high-powered engine, as noted by Frankenheimer in the DVD. Most famously, a 1998 Audi S8 quattro, portrayed as stolen to order and then fitted with a nitrous oxide power-booster, is chosen for its bulk, grip and torque and driven in Paris and Nice by Sudduth's character. As a result the car was rated 9th in Car magazine's Top 40 Coolest Movie Cars.[4] The Frankenheimer DVD commentary indicates that the cars were towed through the streets of France at high speed, not simulated, by a Mercedes-Benz 500E.

Jean-Claude Lagniez, the car stunt coordinator, supervised approximately 150 stunt drivers for various sequences in Ronin. They drove at speeds up to 120 miles per hour (190 km/h), and 80 cars were intentionally wrecked during the course of the production.[5]

The final scene at the Zénith de Paris had 2,000 extras, according to Frankenheimer.

Filming locations[edit]

Empty Restaurant Blue Sky (Rue des Trois Frères, Montmartre) (2011)

Ronin was filmed on location in Paris and southern France.[6][7]

  • Arles Amphitheatre, Arles, France (where Gregor shoots Sam)
  • Les Baux-de-Provence, France (where Vincent's friend Jean-Pierre lives)
  • Blue Sky, Rue des Trois Frères, Montmartre, Paris, France (where Sam meets the others for the first time)
  • Café Van Gogh, 11 Place du Forum, Arles, France (where Seamus calls Deirdre)
  • Majestic Barrière, 10 la Croisette, Cannes, France (where Sam and Deirdre pose as tourists)
  • Pont Alexandre III, Paris, France (where the arms deal ambush takes place beneath the bridge)
  • Porte des Lilas, Paris Métro, Paris, France (where Deirdre meets Seamus)
  • Port du Gros Caillou, Paris, France (where Spence carries out the arms deal)
  • Rue Drevet staircase, between Rue André Barsacq and Rue des Trois Frères, Montmartre, Paris, France (the staircase)
  • La Turbie, above Monte Carlo (where Sam and Deirdre kiss outside the gang's villa and where Sam and the others ambush the convoy)
  • Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, between Nice and Monaco, (where Sam meets his CIA contact)
  • Le Zénith, 211 avenue Jean-Jaurès, La Villette Park, Paris, France (where the ice-show scenes were filmed)
  • Vieux Nice, Nice, France (where Sam's team chases after the case, ending in Port de Nice)


Ronin received generally positive reviews from critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 68% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on a sample of 60 reviews, with an average score of 6.3/10.[8] Many reviewers, like Janet Maslin of The New York Times, praised the cast and Frankenheimer's trademark chase scenes.[9] Roger Ebert praised the "skill and silliness" of the movie, while noting: "The movie is not really about anything; if it were, it might have really amounted to something, since it comes pretty close anyway."[10]

In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films.[11] Ronin was listed at 72nd place on this list.[12]

Home video[edit]

The DVD release has an extensive, detailed commentary about the making of the film by Frankenheimer, where he explains the production techniques used to realize the high speed chases.

The DVD's paper insert includes excerpts from a Frankenheimer interview in which he discusses the chase through a Paris tunnel that is remarkably similar to the site of Princess Diana's death on 31 August 1997. The filming took place in a different tunnel, however. "Paris has a lot of tunnels," Frankenheimer commented. "That’s part of the thing about the city I wanted people to see. A crash in a tunnel in Paris is about as likely as someone having a crash on a freeway here. It happens all the time." (Rocky Mountain News, September 27, 1998).

The US edition of the original DVD release has several navigational hooks to DVD-ROM content, which were taken advantage of several weeks after the original release of the DVD, on MGM's website during a special 'RONIN' event where viewers would be taken on a guided tour of the making of RONIN. Making of scenes shot during filming are hidden on the DVD. Since they are not present on the main menu of the DVD they can only be accessed on a computer using the DVD-ROM program that is on the disc or using a DVD viewing program that allows navigation through the titles of the disc manually. A "Gold Edition" was briefly introduced on the market by MGM, however is no longer in production.

On October 11, 2004 a two-disc Special Edition of the film was released in the US. This new version contains the same material as the old single-disc version on disc one and on disc two there are supplemental material about the film: one documentary, six featurettes, and a picture gallery.

A Blu-ray Disc edition was made available in 2008, which does not include any of the extras on the DVD versions.


  1. ^ a b c Harrison, Eric (August 5, 1998). "Mamet Versus Writers Guild, the Action Thriller Sequel". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Magid, Ron (October 1998). "Samurai Tactics". American Cinematographer. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  3. ^ Bowie, Stephen (November 2006). "John Frankenheimer". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  4. ^ "Top 40 Cars in Movies". Car Magazine. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  5. ^ Murenin, Platon. "Ronin: About the Film". Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  6. ^ "Ronin Film Locations". Movie Locations. Retrieved May 12, 2013. 
  7. ^ "Locations of the Movie Ronin". Cromwell International. Retrieved May 12, 2013. 
  8. ^ "Ronin (1998)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 9, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Ronin: Real Tough Guys, Real Derring-Do". The New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2013. 
  10. ^ "Ronin". Retrieved November 9, 2013. 
  11. ^ "The 100 best action movies". Time Out. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 
  12. ^ "The 100 best action movies: 80-71". Time Out. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 

External links[edit]