RONIN – 20th anniversary
In the last decade of the previous century, the shape of the cinema begun to suddenly change. The entire new generation of filmmakers started to craft movies in their own form and style – mostly fast, with a lot of cuts, over the top action, slow-motion and heavy beats in the background, ‘pretty’ filters and CGI tricks, which made them look more like commercials or music videos, on which their directors’ experience was based anyway. Starting with True Romance (1993) by a veteran Tony Scott, Speed (1994) and, most notable, Bad Boys (1995) the new, ‘cool’ face of the action genre arose. And the old masters slowly commenced to fade away. As if along with the fall of one system, something else had fallen also. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and most of the other notable stars were forced to reinvent themselves, with various results. And many of those careers simply crumbled by the time The Matrix (1999) hit the big screen.
It is impossible to write about Ronin without the context. After all it’s creator, one of the greatest directors of action packed films, such as The Train (1964), French Connection II (1975), Black Sunday (1977) and The Challenge (1982) – John Frankenheimer – passed away soon after, making the death of an entire era somewhat official. Thus his last notable motion picture became the last action film in it’s finest, purest structure and, quite possibly, remains as one of the best ever made too. It is so ‘old school’ in so many ways, it was considered vintage even during the principal photography, in fall 1997.
Lensed by Robert Fraisse, edited by Antony Gibbs and shot partially in Paris – favourite city of Frankenheimer, who lived there quite a long time and was fluent in French – Ronin was literally a blast from the past. In the times when Hollywood was beginning to choke with progressing computer animation, PG-13 ratings and enormous budgets growing like a weed, Frankenheimer took his crew and stellar cast to Europe and did everything his way. The right way. The only way he knew how to do it. And he did it for only fifty-five million dollars (sadly, like many other classically made movies from the 90’s, it was a box office flop).
Shot with multiple cameras almost entirely on location, on real streets with real people and real cars (and, if anyone cares, during real weather), Ronin was based fully on good ol’ stunts, pyrotechnics and skills of the professional drivers – over 300 of them (!!!), some even former Formula 1 members. And luck, of course. Plenty of it. Watching all those wild car chases, that made Ronin legendary, one can wonder, how come not even a single accident occurred on set? Why absolutely no one got hurt or even scratched? After all there’s no hiding behind CGI (well except of one scene with obvious green screen in it – ironically, it’s a conversation piece), no extra protection whatsoever, and no turning back.
Just like William Friedkin in the first French Connection (1971), Frankenheimer – former amateur racing driver himself, and a man, who thirty years earlier made breakthrough technical masterpiece Grand Prix (1966) – just went for it. Every chase scene in this two-hour rollercoaster ride was done in real-time, at very high speed – in exact way as we see it on the big screen, with no image alteration in post-production, like in the case of praised Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). And not only with paid for taking such risk drivers in every car, but with main actors sitting next to them as well! Major stars with no stunt doubles – unless your name is Cruise, it’s an impossible mission nowadays! Considering that 80 automobiles were destroyed during filming – among them brands like Audi, Peugeot, Citroën, BMW and, director’s favourite, Mercedes-Benz – this is a truly metal-crunching realism. It’s honest. And it works. It makes you believe.
But believe in what exactly?