The film centers on a team of hired ex-special operatives trying to steal a mysterious and heavily guarded briefcase while navigating a maze of shifting loyalties and alliances. The film is noted for its realistic car chases through Nice and Paris and its convoluted plot involving the briefcase as a MacGuffin.
At a bistro in Montmartre, Paris, Irish operative Deirdre meets with ex-special operatives-turned mercenaries Sam and Larry, both Americans, and Vincent, a Frenchman. She takes them to a warehouse where fellow mercenaries, German Gregor and Englishman Spence, are waiting. There, Deirdre briefs the men on their mission: they have been hired to attack a heavily armed convoy and steal a large metallic briefcase, the contents of which are never revealed. As the team prepares, Deirdre meets with her handler, Seamus O'Rourke, who reveals that the Russian mob is bidding for the case and the team must intervene. After Spence is exposed as a fraud by Sam and summarily dismissed, the others depart for Nice. Sam and Deirdre develop an attraction to each other during a stakeout. On the day of the sale, Deirdre's team ambush the convoy at La Turbie and pursue the survivors back to Nice. After a gun battle at the port, Gregor steals the case and disappears.
Gregor tries to sell the case to the Russians, but he is forced to kill his contact when he betrays him. He then contacts Mikhi, the Russian mobster in charge of the deal, and makes him agree to another meeting. The rest of the team later track Gregor through one of Sam's old CIA contacts and corner him in the Arles Amphitheatre, where he is meeting two of Mikhi's men. Gregor flees but is captured by Seamus, who kills Larry and escapes with Deirdre. Sam gets shot saving Vincent's life and is taken to a villa in Les Baux-de-Provence owned by Vincent's friend Jean-Pierre. After removing the bullet and letting Sam recuperate, Vincent asks Jean-Pierre to help them locate Gregor and the Irish.
Back in Paris, Gregor is brutally interrogated into leading Seamus and Deirdre to a post office, where they retrieve the case. Sam and Vincent pursue them in a high-speed chase, which ends when Vincent shoots out Deirdre's tires and sends her car over a highway overpass. Gregor flees with the case while roadworkers save Deirdre and Seamus from the burning vehicle. Sam and Vincent then decide to track down the Russians and learn from one of Jean-Pierre's contacts that they are involved with figure skater Natacha Kirilova, who is appearing at Le Zénith arena.
That night during her performance, Natacha's boyfriend Mikhi meets with Gregor, who reveals there is a sniper in the arena who will shoot Natacha if Mikhi betrays him. Mikhi kills Gregor anyway and leaves with the case, letting the sniper kill Natacha. Sam and Vincent follow the panicked mob 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 a CIA agent pursuing Seamus, not the case. Deirdre drives away, forcing Seamus to run back to the arena with Sam in pursuit. Seamus ambushes Sam, but 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' death. Sam looks toward the door expectantly, but Vincent reminds him that Deirdre will not be coming back. Sam drives off with his CIA contact. Vincent pays the bill and leaves.Robert De Niro as Sam
Jean Reno as Vincent
Natascha McElhone as Deirdre
Stellan Skarsgård as Gregor
Sean Bean as Spence
Skipp Sudduth as Larry
Michael Lonsdale as Jean-Pierre
Jan Triska as "Dapper Gent"
Jonathan Pryce as Seamus O'Rourke
Féodor Atkine as Mikhi
Katarina Witt as Natacha Kirilova
Bernard Bloch as Sergei
The original screenplay for Ronin was written by John David 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, but his contributions were minor. In addition to enlarging De Niro's role, Mamet added a female love interest and rewrote several scenes. 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." Upon learning he would have to share screenwriting credit with Zeik, Mamet insisted he be credited under the pseudonym Richard Weisz.
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. 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."
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. He 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."
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," he 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." 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".
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, 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 stunt drivers. 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 535i E34, and a 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. 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). Eighty cars were intentionally wrecked during the course of the production.
The final scene at the Zénith de Paris had 2,000 extras, according to Frankenheimer.
Ronin was filmed on location in Paris and southern France.Arles Amphitheatre, Arles, France (where Gregor shoots Sam)
Les Baux-de-Provence, France (where Vincent's friend Jean-Pierre lives)
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. Many reviewers, like Janet Maslin of The New York Times, praised the cast and Frankenheimer's trademark chase scenes. 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." Todd McCarthy of Variety called it "a pleasurable throwback".
In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films. Ronin was listed at 72nd place on this list.
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, but 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 by MGM in 2008, which does not include any of the extras on the DVD versions.
Arrow released a special edition Blu-ray Disc on August 14, 2017 in the UK and August 15, 2017 in the US. The release contains a special 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative, as well as several new special features.