It is producer Frank Mancuso Jr, who nails down just what it is that makes one of this
yearís most talked-about films stand out so strongly from the crowd. "Movies
with this amount of plot and character donít usually have this amount of
action," says the producer, who counts among his credits such varied titles as He
Said, She Said, Internal Affairs, Species and Hoodlum. "And movies with this amount
of action donít have such a carefully built plot and characters."
Ronin unites veteran director John Frankenheimer with an ensemble cast of major stars
from radically different backgrounds. There is Swedish actor Stellan SkarsgŚrd,
unforgettable as the crippled oil-rig worker in Lars von Trierís sublime Breaking the
Waves and as the maths professor who discovers Matt Damonís genius in Good Will
Hunting; top French star Jean Reno, a Luc Besson regular (Subway, Nikita, The
Professional) who has had roles in such major Hollywood movies as Mission: Impossible and,
most recently, Godzilla; Jonathan Pryce, who has combined a Cannes award (for his
portrayal of Lytton Strachey in Carrington) with major box-office outings like Evita (as
Juan Peron) and Tomorrow Never Dies (in which he was the quintessential Bond villain).
Then there is rising British star Natascha McElhone, the discovery of Surviving
Picasso, who has subsequently appeared in Marleen Gorrisí Mrs Dalloway and The Truman
Show. And finally there is Robert De Niro, a well known actorÖ.
"he didnít want the movie to be: a
testosterone-heavy action extravaganza"
Mancuso, very much a hands-on producer, has steered the project through several
re-writes (including an uncredited dialogue polish by David Mamet, brought in at De
Niroís suggestion). Indeed, it was Mancuso who first approached Frankenheimer to
direct Ronin and was a regular (and, by all accounts, welcome) presence on the set.
So it is not surprising that he knew exactly what he didnít want the movie to be:
a testosterone-heavy action extravaganza in which "the set pieces are designed in
such a way that they donít feel real: they have to seem incredible in order to build
up an attractive trailer and make people say ĎWow! I never saw anything like that! I
want to see that movie!í"
Mancuso knew, of course, that Frankenheimer - not to mention De Niro and the other cast
members - would never have signed up for the former kind of film. But, he says, "the
challenge for us was to take real situations and make them both realistic and spectacular.
The stunts in Ronin are less choreographed, but youíre right in the middle of the
action. Iíve been watching a lot of movies lately, where everything looked too
glamorised, too polished, like a Pepsi commercial, as opposed to this hyper-real,
in-your-face, no-bullshit action movie which John and I have tried to do."
"Ronin is the first movie in 25 years that
Frankenheimer has shot in France"
Ronin is the first movie in 25 years that Frankenheimer has shot in France, his second
home, where he made such classics as The Train and The French Connection II. The latter (a
rare case of the sequel being better than the original) made extremely effective use of
the teeming, tumbledown architecture of Marseilles. Ironically, it will have been recalled
to many minds by recent TV images of British soccer hooligans battling with French police
along that same stretch of the cityís Old Port where Gene Hackmanís Popeye Doyle
strained his heart and lungs to bursting-point with his epic pursuit of fleeing drug baron
Marseilles doesnít feature in Ronin, but Frankenheimerís new film does make
memorable use of the even more picturesque old port, complete with its own hinterland of
twisting streets, a couple of hundred miles along the Mediterranean coast at Nice.
And, while most directors his age (he celebrated his 67th birthday during the shoot)
would have left the stunt work to a second-unit director, Frankenheimer headed straight
off for Nice after the completion of principal photography in Paris to handle the
"This is a movie that had to have one style," he insists, "and I have a
very definite style. Sure, I would have enjoyed going back to California and relaxing, but
there was nobody else who could do what I had in mind. It had to look a certain way, and I
was the only person who knew how to do that."
"Taking its title from the Japanese word for a
Taking its title from the Japanese word for a freelance samurai - a warrior who, either
because of a breach of discipline or simply because circumstances have changed, no longer
has a master and no longer belongs to a clan - Ronin is the tense, pared-down tale of six
mercenaries (five men and one woman) who are hired to recover a mysterious briefcase for
an unknown employer. Neither they nor we know what is in the briefcase or who their real
employer is. But the job suits them: all but one have been forcibly retired from the
murky, disciplined and all-consuming world of espionage after the end of the Cold War and,
like Peckinpahís Wild Bunch, they find themselves adrift in a world to which they no
longer seem to belong. As in Peckinpahís western, the results in Ronin are explosive.
"Being a warrior without a war," explains Mancuso, "a ronin creates wars
or joins someone elseís. These are not wars of conscience or morality, but simply
battles he engages in because of his skills.
"Our ronins emerged just after the Cold War. Their governments did not need to
keep high-priced mercenaries on the payroll any more, and they no longer needed to dupe
these individuals into thinking they were doing the country a big favour. So now,
suddenly, these guys are out there - and they are not exactly going to work in a bank!
They have to use their skills in a new and different way. They become men for hire."
The one exception to this rule is not a man at all: Deirdre (played by McElhone), a
former IRA terrorist whose Ďwarí was still going on when the film went into
production on November 3, 1997. But even that long and violent chapter of modern history
had ended, following the signing of the Ulster peace accord, by the time the film
completed principal photography on March 3, 1998.
"Itís a thriller, itís a suspense film and
itís an action movie for adults," director John
So, in a way in which Mancuso can hardly have anticipated when he first came across the
script a couple of years ago, history has brought Deirdre into line with Sam (De Niro),
Vincent (Reno), Gregor (SkarsgŚrd), Spence (British star Sean Bean, who played the
terrorist in Patriot Games and was the Bond villain before Pryce in GoldenEye) and Larry,
the driver (played by newcomer Skipp Sudduth, who previously worked with Frankenheimer on
his acclaimed HBO biopic, George Wallace, which aired in the US in the spring of 1998).
So how does the veteran director himself see Ronin? "Itís a thriller,
itís a suspense film and itís an action movie for adults," says
Frankenheimer all-embracingly. "I think itís an intelligent movie. Itís not
overly complicated, but it requires a degree of attention in order to fully enjoy it.
"A lot of things are left unsaid and I think thatís good, because I
donít believe in long back-stories," continues the director, who has specialised
in using action-movie situations to explore moral dilemmas in such films as The Train,
Black Sunday and, above all, the classic Manchurian Candidate. "The film is all about
behaviours. Our characters act in a certain way. The audience gets to know them through
that and we don't need to explain everything in detail.
"This is a film about suspicion, mistrust and betrayal - a film about
misconnections," he adds. "Somebody just doesnít show up where and when he
was expected, and everything goes wrong.
"Itís also a film which questions our ethics"
"Itís also a film which questions our ethics: what does the word
Ďhonourí mean? What does it mean to Ďdo oneís jobí? At the end,
there are no victors, just two survivors, because these kind of stories never end
triumphantly. But this is in no way a downbeat film: this is a real movie and, in real
life, winning costs a lot. You have to pay a tremendous price for every victory."