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Film / Ronin (1998)

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Jean-Pierre: The warrior code, the delight in the battle, you understand that, yes? But also something more. You understand there is something outside yourself that has to be served. And when that need is gone—when belief has died—what are you? A man without a master?
Sam: Right now, I'm a man without a paycheck.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, with the decline of the Iron Curtain, many secret agents became unnecessary or redundant. They knew a lot of secrets and had a lot of skills, so they sold their services on the Black Market. With the end of the Cold War, the world wasn't all sunshine and rainbows; there were still geopolitical tensions, except with new players. This 1998 film deals with some of these displaced spies and agents, who are compared to Rōnin, the unemployed Samurai of old Japan.

The plot centers around a team of ex-secret agents, now mercenaries, hired to steal a valuable metal suitcase that is always attached by handcuffs to a Courier. There are complex deals and double crosses to get whatever is inside it. Apparently it is valuable enough to cause lots of shootouts and car chases.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, the film has Robert De Niro heading a cast of notable character actors, such as Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, and Michael Lonsdale. The finished film was partially or completely written by David Mamet depending on who you ask (original and credited screenwriter J.D. Zeik and others close to the production say Mamet only did some fleshing out of DeNiro's character, while Frankenheimer says the script is all Mamet).

Ronin contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Deirdre, who is heavily involved in the firefight in Nice, then hurling the BMW M5 around the streets of Paris.
  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The scene between Sam and Jean-Pierre.
  • The Alleged Expert: Spence is supposedly a former SAS trooper turned mercenary. He's actually a fraud.
  • An Asskicking Christmas: The movie is set sometime around Christmas.
  • Arc Words: The film contains numerous variations of "I don't remember," and "Do I know you?" with different characters revealing a lot about themselves in what they choose to remember or admit to knowing. This running theme is remarked upon by Vincent at the end of the film: "No questions... no answers."
  • Badass Driver: Larry, Vincent, Sam and Deirdre in movie and the various stunt drivers. In the words of the Director about the driver who raced through Paris and did the four-wheel drifts in the first chase: "That Audi was not built to do that."
  • Bait the Dog: Mikhi can't be such a bad guy when he's so nice to his girlfriend, right? Wrong, he lets her die over refusing to pay Gregor some money.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The case is recovered and Seamus is eliminated, allowing peace between the IRA and the British to go forward. (The contents of the case are never revealed, but it is implied to be a decoy used to lure out Seamus, anyways) Sam and Vincent part as friends, with Sam likely keeping Vincent as a contact to utilize in the future, so this isn't goodbye for either of them. But Sam Did Not Get the Girl and a lot of people are dead by the end.
  • Blackmail Backfire/Threat Backfire: Gregor threatens to kill Natacha if he is not paid for the case by the end of his countdown. The Russians wait until he is at "one" on his countdown to raise their guns and show her they give exactly zero shits about her life, if they can get the case.
  • Bluff the Impostor: When Sam suspects one of his colleagues isn't telling the truth about his background, he tests him with questions like "What's the colour of the boathouse at Hereford?" Sam doesn't know either, but he knows that a real SAS veteran wouldn't have been so flustered by the question that Sam could get the drop on him.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: With the old "paper underneath the real bills" trick.
  • The Cameo:
    • Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt as skater Natacha Kirilova.
    • Porn star Ron Jeremy in a Deleted Scene (cut because a lot of people in previews knew who he was, and it was too jarring).
    • Michael Lonsdale appears as a colleague of Reno's who helps with Sam's surgery after a shoot-out, and who happens to be a fan of The 47 Ronin legend.
  • The Caper: The first part of the movie.
  • Chase Scene: The car chases are some of the most praised by action buffs.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A coffee cup. Twice, as in another scene the same cup is used yet again, this time to reveal a Chekhov's Skill.
  • Cold Sniper:
    • The female unnamed sniper working with Gregor shoots Natascha the moment his deadline runs out without any hesitation.
    • Gregor himself is one, judging by his attempting to take a long-range pistol shot at a child before his companion pushes his hand away.
  • Conspicuously Public Assassination: While stealing the case, the team starts two intense shootouts in broad daylight, ending with them mowing down the Principal and what's left of his security detail in front of a crowded cafe.
  • Cool Car: Euro hot-rod sedans. The nitrous-equipped Audi S8 used in two chase scenes, the Citroen XM used by the Principal, the Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9, and the BMW M5 driven by Deirdre in oncoming traffic.
  • Downer Ending: Slightly with the deleted scenes. Deirdre ponders trying to reunite with Sam but is abruptly caught and presumably killed by her former IRA associates. The scene really doesn't add much to the ending and makes the IRA seem somewhat omniscient, so it was probably good that it was removed.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Several cars crash and explode, most notably during the Paris car chase. Some realism, as this is either from a rocket up the arse or the ignition of spilled fuel.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Gregor's contact (the man Gregor intimidates by almost sniping some random kid, just to show he's determined to kill him if he's double-crossed) get some serious jitters from Gregor pulling this (and even diverts Gregor's shot at the last second).
  • Fakeout Makeout:
    • Used to obtain pictures of the case and its protectors (they are on the background of the picture Sam asks to be taken as the make-out happens).
    • Sam and Deirdre are sitting in a car at night, scoping a target. When a car passes them, he pulls the fake-out. After they pull apart, she silently straddles him for a little real making-out.
  • Femme Fatale: Deirdre.
  • The 47 Ronin: Described in-film by a history buff who tries to identify Sam as a ronin in spirit. Sam rejects the comparison but it turns out he's still a 'samurai'.
  • Former Regime Personnel: Pretty much all of the characters. Averted by Sam.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Gregor is the only mercenary with glasses. He’s also the most cutthroat and opportunistic of all of them, and he betrays the others so he can sell off the MacGuffin to the highest bidder.
  • Genre Throwback: The film is essentially a classic '70s era heist film, but made and set in the late '90s.
  • Good Is Not Nice: For a given definition of "good". Unlike his teammates, Sam is still working for the CIA, but that doesn't mean he won't deploy explosive ordnance and instigate a massive shootout in the middle of a bustling city. Later he doesn't hesitate to shoot a fleeing enemy while surrounded by countless tourists. A lot of civilian bystanders get killed in the process.
  • The Ghost: The man in the wheelchair, who put together the recruits but is never shown.
  • Greed: Gregor's motivation for stealing the case for himself is so he can sell it directly to the Russians himself and keep the entire payday. Turns into his Fatal Flaw when they try to kill him during the initial meetup, but he avariciously still tries to sell it to them a second time for an even heftier price. The second time, he's Out-Gambitted and murdered.
  • Guns Do Not Work That Way: After a gunfight, Sam reveals that a bullet went through his kevlar because the "smartass sprayed Teflon on his bullets." Teflon isn't what makes a bullet armor piercing. It's just a coating to protect the inside of the barrel on the bullet's way out of the gun.
  • Handcuffed Briefcase: The target is a briefcase handcuffed to the wrist of a VIP the mercenaries are ordered to secure with a MacGuffin inside.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Sam and Vincent.
  • Hey, Catch!: Sam tests Gregor by deliberately spilling coffee and knocking a cup off the counter when he goes to mop up the spill. Gregor catches the cup before it falls without spilling the contents, revealing he has incredibly good reflexes for someone who is seemingly just there to run the tech side of the heist.
  • Hired Guns: Most of the main characters are mercenaries hired by Deirdre under orders from Seamus to retrieve the case. In Sam's case, it's only a cover story, since he's a CIA agent posing as a mercenary in order to take Seamus down.
  • Hollywood Silencer: One of the attachments to Gregor's Sniper Pistol. It also makes the appropriate sound when he kills his contact at the end of the scene, and when he is in turn killed by the Russians in the climax.
  • Hollywood Tactics: Spence's plan to capture the briefcase is to have two shooters blasting away at the car carrying it from opposite sides of the street. Sam calls him out on it (the shooters risk hitting each other with their stray bullets).
  • Hostage for MacGuffin: One that backfires badly when they're entirely willing to let the hostage die.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Jean-Pierre. Aside from helping Sam perform self-surgery and locating both Gregor and the Russians in Paris, his probing questions of both Vincent and Sam suggest he knows, or at least suspects, that Sam still works for his government and isn't a real ronin.
  • I Have Your Wife: Gregor attempts to ensure the cooperation of the Russians this way. It doesn't work.
  • Irish Explosives Expert: A mysterious Irish woman hires the characters to move a briefcase, but won't tell them what it contains - Sam at one point asks if it's a bomb. We never find out.
  • Karmic Death: Gregor is willing to murder a child to show how ruthless he is. He underestimated Mikhi, who's equally ruthless and chooses to shoot Gregor and let his own young girlfriend be publicly murdered rather than pay for the case.
  • Kick the Dog: Gregor tries to murder a child just to make an offhanded point about how ruthless he is.
  • Kick The Son Of A Bitch: When Mikhi puts a round in Gregor's forehead, and when Seamus kills Mikhi for the case.
  • Kill the Cutie: Natascha is killed by Gregor's accomplice. Gregor earlier almost does so to a little girl at a playground.
  • Like You Would Really Do It: Happens in-universe. Gregor assumes the Russians will let him live to spare the life of Natacha, but he is proven wrong 45 seconds later.
  • Mamet Speak: When one of the film's writers is David Mamet himself, it's a given. Sam demonstrates he is a veteran spy by, for example, rapid-firing an interrogation to Deidre about details of the case so "he won't feel like he's in Amateur Night" and upping his fee when she refuses to give him any. The whole cast is composed of terse talkers.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • Sam claims the man he's talking to about triangulating a phone number is a friend from high school. Obviously, it isn't true, as Vincent realizes, but he doesn't actually care and repeats the claim about his own friend later on. His refusal to knock him out suggests Vincent may have been telling the truth though.
  • The Lancer: Vincent, to Sam's more heroic protagonist.
  • MacGuffin: The case, the contents of which are never revealed. Sam isn't pleased at all when Deirdre refuses to give any details on what's in the case (though his questions — "is it heavy, is it explosive?" — suggest he doesn't really care so much about the precise contents as he does whether or not it has any properties he needs to take into account while grabbing it, such as weight, fragility or volatility) and demands that if it's "amateur night," they're all going to have to be paid much, much more. Turns out in the end that Sam wasn't even interested in the case. He was after Deirdre's boss Seamus, an Irish terrorist leader who was getting in the way of peace talks, and the case was just a way to get him into the open.
  • The Mafiya
  • Meaningful Name: Sam. As in Samurai, not Ronin
  • Miles Gloriosus: Spence is quite quickly revealed to be this.
  • The Mole: Sam never left the CIA.
  • Mysterious Past:
    Sam: So, how'd you get started in this business?
    Deirdre: [smiles] A wealthy scoundrel seduced and betrayed me.
    Sam: Same with me. How about that?
  • Noisy Nature: Just an hour into the film, which takes place in central France, we get an aerial view of a hilly Mediterranean countryside... complete with the stereotypical "eagle cry" of strictly North American Red-tailed Hawk.
  • No Name Given: None of the on-screen characters' last names are revealed, except for Seamus O'Rourke, whose full name is mentioned in a news report at the end. While most of them are probably using their real first names, "Sam" most likely is not.
  • Noodle Incident: When Sergei sneaks up behind Vincent.
    Sergei: Stop. [Vincent stops and turns] Where do I know you from?
    Vincent: Vienna.
    Sergei: Of course....
  • Oh, Crap!: The look on Gregor's face when he realizes the Russians are perfectly willing to let Natacha die. That look doesn't last long.
  • Oireland: Natascha McElhone's Northern accent as Deirdre is rather dodgy and occasionally disappears. What makes it stranger is that McElhone has an Irish mother, yet Jonathan Pryce's accent is often more realistic.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business:
    • When the normally unshakable Vincent suddenly drops a French Precision F-Strike and buckles up, you know your already frantic car chase is about to get a lot worse.
    Vincent: Merde!
    • A similar one happens later when the equally stoic Gregor suddenly starts sweating nervously...
  • Out-Gambitted: Gregor assumes he has the upper hand in the negotiation by threatening to have Natacha killed if they don't pay him. Too late, he realizes that the woman's own boyfriend is more than ready to let her die rather than pay up.
  • Pretty in Mink: Natacha (the skater) wears a mink coat in her first scene. She gets killed, but it's because her Jerkass friend lets her die.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: One is inflicted upon Gregor.
  • Prove I Am Not Bluffing: Gregor shoots at a random child in a playground just to make the point that he's a conscienceless killer who shouldn't be doublecrossed. The man he is dealing with frantically assures him that the demonstration will not be necessary, and pushes away his hand so the bullet misses.
  • Psycho for Hire: Played very straight with Gregor, who is of the cold, methodical type, but still perfectly willing to kill random civilians just to make his point.
  • Put on a Bus: Spence, after Sam reveals that he's a twat and lied about his background.
  • Replaced with Replica: The briefcase that has the MacGuffin was replaced by Gregor with a similar one, except that it was meant to be detonated after a certain period of time. Sam was able to get rid of it after he noticed paint smears on his hands when he held the case.
  • The Reveal: "I never left."
  • Rewatch Bonus: One blink-and-you-miss-it scene shows an unseen person spray-painting a window silver from the inside when Sam and Deirdre leave the safehouse to scope out the opposition. While meaningless at that moment, it turns into a nice bit of Foreshadowing to Gregor's betrayal when you know that the suitcase he throws Sam after the chase through Nice turns out to be a spray-painted, booby-trapped mock.
  • Rogue Agent: The characters are former Cold War spies and special forces operatives working as mercenaries, but at least one—and possibly others—are still secretly working for their own governments. Likewise, the terrorist Seamus is described by the IRA as a 'rogue breakaway operative' after he fails to get his hands on the mysterious suitcase.
  • Rule of Three: The "lessons" Sam learnt as a spy: "When in doubt, there is no doubt", the second one (in sarcastic jest) is that he forgot who gave him the first lesson, and the third one is said by Vincent in narration at the end: you will have a lot of questions but very few (or maybe never will have) answers, so best to deal with it and carry on to the next assignment.
  • Self-Surgery: Done by Sam. For his credit, he mostly acted as an instructor and asked if they now manage to stitch him before passing out. And with the final reveal we learn he did it only to uphold the masquerade.
  • Schmuck Bait: Whilst the team are buying weapons from some shady arms dealers in the first act, the dealers attempt to lure them into a spot under a bridge to get the rest of the order. Sam immediately pegs this as an obvious ambush spot, warning Vincent and Spence not to follow them in; Spence baulks at this, but the more stoic Vincent accepts the warning but goes in anyway, because he is "getting paid to go". When Sam spots a sniper and opens fire, triggering a firefight, Vincent is ready for it, whilst Spence is both literally and figuratively blindsided.
  • Spotting the Thread: A number of Spence's actions don't fit with his purported background - he suggests the team essentially walk into a trap during the weapons buy, and his reaction to the ensuing firefight is that of a man who has never seen combat. What ultimately causes Sam to question his story, however, is his dangerously inept plan to steal the case - Sam immediately points out that if the ambush positions are laid out as Spence drew them, they'll be directly in each other's fields of fire and liable to shoot each other.
    • Also, the fake case Gregor hands to Sam during the heist whilst doublecrossing the team is hastily painted with cheap silver spraypaint, which comes off on Sam's hand and leather jacket moments before he realises the ruse and tells Larry to get rid of it moments before it explodes. This insight not only saves the team from being killed, but later comes back when Sam and Vincent are trying to track Gregor after he escapes them again in Paris: Sam spots a pair of similar cases for ice skates, deduces that Gregor had to have been supplied with his phony case in Paris prior to the job, and Vincent in turn realises that it was provided by the Russians, and that they will lead him to Gregor if they can find them instead.
  • Terse Talker: The movie is a masterclass on laconic dialogue. Major plot twists that other movies would build whole scenes around are delivered in single, brief sentences ("I never left.") and every piece of exposition is given in cryptic bursts of Noodle Incidence ("Vienna."). The only exception is a brief news report at the very end, which makes sense: it's not meant for the shadowy world of spies the movie inhabits.
  • Title Drop: The doctor has a bunch of tiny samurai figurines set up to depict the story of The 47 Ronin. He and Sam have a conversation comparing the mercenaries to Rōnin.
  • Token Evil Teammate: The mercenaries are hardly paragons of moral virtue, but all of them have sympathetic qualities and standards to varying degrees except for Gregor, who even goes out of his way in one scene to make the point that he has absolutely no quote-on-quote 'standards.'
  • Toyota Tripwire: Happens to Gregor in Arles.
  • The Unfettered: Gregor. Not deranged, but willing to kill a little girl he doesn't know to demonstrate a willingness to kill someone he does. Also arranges to have another innocent murdered if he dies during the climax. He does, and so do they. Barely emotes throughout the whole film.
  • Unishment: Once Spence is outed as a faker, he's simply told to take a hike and given a payoff to keep his mouth shut. Considering what usually happens to characters played by Sean Bean, it's a pretty good deal even without the hush money.
  • The Unreveal: Whatever is in the case, it might as well belong to Marcellus Wallace. This irritates Sam, since knowing if it was heavy, explosive, fragile, or whatever would be helpful in getting it (and his CIA handlers presumably do want to know its contents), but Deirdre steadily refuses to give out any data. He thus demands that the fee goes up. The final scene of the movie teases that Sam may know what's in the case, but when Vincent asks him it, Sam dodges the question, grinning. Vincent is happy to let it slide; by this time, he no longer cares about the case and was just asking out of idle curiosity. As his voiceover confirms.... "No questions, no answers. That's the business we're in."
  • Wannabe Secret Agent: Spence claims to be former special ops, but his inexperience - in fact, outright naiveté - quickly becomes apparent, and he is sent packing immediately.
  • Weapon Specialization: Vincent's only weapon is a Beretta 92FS Inox. Sam admits he favors the 1911 pistol and uses one several times, but also claims the idea of having a weapon of choice in the first place is too limiting.
    "You know, it's a toolbox. I don't care. You put the tools in for the job. That's all."
  • We Have to Get the Bullet Out!: Sam catches a bullet and has some impromptu surgery at the hideout.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of Deirdre. A Deleted Scene at the end would have shown her getting caught and killed by her former IRA partners.
    • Whatever happens to Spence. Most action films made during this era would have a character that disappeared early on (especially a well-known actor like Sean Bean) return during the pivotal Final Battle. He doesn't.
  • Worthy Opponent: Sergei seems to be a good deal more honorable than Mikhi when dealing with Gregor. Then, when he and Vincent recognize each other, he aims, ready to kill Vincent, but he makes it clear it's not personal. Earlier drafts of the script stated openly that Sergei and Vincent had a lot of respect for each other.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Gregor is perfectly willing to snipe a child on a playground just to make a point to his current business partner. The only reason his shot misses is said business partner's freaked-out intervention.
  • Why Don't Ya Just Shoot Him?: Sergei and Seamus both fall for this, though it's not as blatant as normal.
    • Inverted by Sam as the hero, lampshaded by Vincent verbatim, 'Why didn't you just shoot her?'
  • Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell: The film's title alludes to former agents, on both sides of the Cold War, now being like Ronin samurai.

Alternative Title(s): Ronin