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Ronin: 20 years on - best car film ever?

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Words: David Mullen - @Werner_Hedgehog

Published on: October 12, 2018

Words: David Mullen - @Werner_Hedgehog

Published on: October 12, 2018

This month marks 20 years since the release of Ronin, arguably the best car film of them all.

If we were to put our film critic hats on for a moment, John Frankenheimer's 1997 classic, Ronin, may not stand up to much hard scrutiny. The plot centres around a bunch of ex-special forces operatives hired by some unspecified dissident Northern Irish republicans to capture a case from a bunch of other, non-specific, shady goons. What's in the case? We don't know. The case is a 'MacGuffin', a term for an object whose sole function is to move a plot along and give the characters something to quest after - think the Holy Grail or the Maltese Falcon. It's a long film at over 160 minutes, but the plot moves along briskly with double-crosses and twists aplenty, though serving as little more than a vehicle for the numerous action scenes.

There's some really solid acting talent here - Robert de Niro, Jean Reno, Natasha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard and Jonathan Pryce to name but a few, though their abilities are largely wasted on cardboard cut-out characters where depth is slyly hinted at, but never explored and motivations (like that of a little bit of romantic tension developing between de Niro's Sam and McElhone's Deirdre) never quite explained. The talent extends beyond the actors too. The screenplay was co-written by David Mamet (under a pseudonym), he of Glengarry Glen Ross fame and directed by Hollywood veteran Frankenheimer - no stranger to shooting car-based action scenes as evinced by the tedious, but beautifully shot Grand Prix in 1966. And it's here where we can take off our film critic hats and put back on our car enthusiast ones because Frankenheimer, like us, loved cars - Grand Prix was made with an enthusiast's attention to detail and is often lauded as the greatest motor racing film of all time (alongside Steve McQueen's Le Mans, of course). He also had a vast collection of model cars and, bearing in mind that our film critic hats have not just been removed, but flung far away, in 1997 with the release of Ronin, he made what could possibly be the best car lover's movie of all time.

The plot of Ronin doesn't particularly matter. What matters are the action scenes, slickly and precisely shot with a refusal to use the kind of high-end cars that often feature in car chases. Looking at other films of the era, it's not like the Aston Martin vs. Ferrari chase in Goldeneye or the Ferrari/Humvee battle in Armageddon - it features the kinds of Peugeots, Renaults and BMWs that people's Dads might have had, which is one of the reasons we love it so.

Chase 1
Audi S8 vs. Peugeot 205
The first bit of automotive action isn't much of a chase. Escaping from a deal gone bad and with shots fired, it's up to Larry, the driver, to get Sam, Vincent and Spence (Sean Bean) back to through the nocturnal streets of Paris to the safehouse and evade the police. The police are driving a trusty old Peugeot 205, which, absolutely glorious though it might be, is no match for the all-wheel-drive S8 with its 4.2-litre V8 and, as Larry previously specified, a nitrous kit. Even with the maximum cornering commitment displayed by the Gendarmerie, the 205 just can't keep up. This chase though, is a mere taster for what's to come, shot with the sharp, choppy immediacy and a great sense of speed generated by the old trick of mounting a gyro-stabilised camera on the car's front bumper.

Chase 2
Audi S8, Mercedes 450 SEL, Peugeot Expert vs. Citroen XM, Peugeot 605
So, our team of crooks are after the non-specific goons again and this time the plan is to ambush the convoy in which the case is being carried - quiet French village, rig some traffic lights, bit of shooting and bish, bash, bosh, the dissident Republicans get the case. The goon convoy consists of four sleek, black and extremely presidential French cars - a trio of Peugeot 605s and a Citroen XM. The crooks are in the Audi again, but this time it's joined by a rather handsome 1976 Mercedes 450 SEL (that's the 6.9-litre one) and, curiously, Deirdre and Gregor the ex-KGB tech-guy in a Peugeot Expert van.

The village ambush doesn't go according to plan though and one of the 605s gets blown-up, the other two, along with the XM escaping. Vincent (Jean Reno) gives chase in the Merc, throwing it around like a sports car until it catches up one of the Pugs on a twisty mountain road and Sam (de Niro) pops out of the sunroof and shoots at it with some class of bazooka that causes it to meet a fiery end. Meanwhile, Larry in the Audi goes after the wonderfully floaty barge of a Citroen, chasing it off-road over some tremendous jumps and finally, down into the narrow streets of Nice. Oh! A vegetable seller! That can only mean one thing - yes that's right, it's getting a Citroen, an Audi, an old Merc and a Peugeot driven through it with hilarious (and probably financially ruinous) consequences. The chase ends in a shootout and a crash into a crowded café full of people (best not think about the utterly horrific consequences too hard, eh?). The Merc is the only car to survive the chase. Apparently, the actor Skip Sudduth that plays Larry, the Audi driver asked Frankenheimer if he could do his own stunt driving to which Frankenheimer replied "Sure, but I don't want to see any brake lights."

There's some double-dealing next and a bit of betrayal and, following a foot-chase through the Roman amphitheatre in Arles, Sam and Vincent carjack a Mk3 Volkswagen Golf and drive it to the home of one of Vincent's old buddies, Jean-Pierre, played by Michel Lonsdale. The only reason we mention this is because it allows us to bring up our favourite bit of trivia - three of the actors in Ronin also played Bond villains - Michel Lonsdale in Moonraker, Sean Bean in GoldenEye and Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies.

Chase 3
Peugeot 406 vs. BMW 535i vs. Citroen ZX
This one's the daddy of them all. Sam and Vincent have been double-crossed by everyone and are determined to get the case for themselves. They find the Republicans, Deirdre and Seamus O'Rourke (Pryce) and, again, in an attempt to snatch the case, a chase ensues. It's complete mayhem. The two cars, a BMW 535i, driven by Deirdre and a Peugeot 406 driven by Sam, careen pell-mell through the streets of Paris with scant regard for the safety of pedestrians or other motorists. It's quite remarkable that an old 406 is able to keep up with a 535, but that's movie magic. They plough the wrong way up motorways, hundreds of oncoming cars trying to avoid them. Rumour has it that the stunt drivers in the oncoming cars weren't flashing their lights at the drivers in the BMW and Peugeot for the sake of realism, but rather it was a kind of code that they developed in order to communicate with each other during the fast-moving chase scenes. When you see McElhone and De Niro looking terrified behind the wheel, that's because the stunt cars were actually right-hand-drive with a fake steering wheel set-up on the passenger side to give the illusion that the actors were driving.

Meanwhile, the police try to pursue these madmen leaving a trail of death and destruction behind them, but their Citroen ZX cop cars simply aren't up to much and they ignominiously topple over onto their roofs. The editing is fast, the music is pulsating and the camera angles give a tremendous sense of speed. For realism's sake, the cinematographers didn't mess with the frame rate and so what you see isn't speeded-up footage. The BMW meets a fiery end as it plunges off an unfinished motorway exit ramp, though the occupants miraculously escape. It is said that 80 vehicles were destroyed in the making of Ronin - we'd well believe it.

In the end, the Peugeot 406 reigns supreme as it reigned supreme in the hearts of Irish buyers for many years (remember when these were everywhere?). The elegant, Pininfarina-styled saloon never looked better though, than when it was being hurled around the streets of Paris. The ending of the film is most satisfying for Irish viewers, not least because of the fact that the nation's favourite, the 406, came out on top. After more chasing (and a truly hilarious moment where Pryce, in his fake Northern Irish accent, accuses someone of being "a stupid shite"), Seamus gets shot by Vincent. A news report later tells us that Seamus' death has led to an IRA ceasefire and the British and Irish governments reaching an historic agreement to bring the war in the North to a close (presumably referring to the Good Friday Agreement). So, in addition to a very fine car-chase movie, Ronin also gives us a large and rather funny dose of alternate history. It really is a film that rewards another watch.