Like Sneakers, Ronin feels like a 1970s movie that somehow got made in the 1990s. The plot of former spies banding together as mercenaries for a job is explicitly post-Cold War, but the stoicism of the characters and performances (by Robert de Niro, Jonathan Pryce, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Natascha McElhone, Michel Lonsdale, Skipp Sudduth, and Sean Bean), the efficiency of the plot (featuring a pure MacGuffin in the form of a suitcase) and script (rewritten by David Mamet as “Richard Weisz,” who definitely learned some things here that he would use in making Heist and Spartan), and most of all the great scene-by-scene direction from John Frankenheimer all make this feel like it belongs on a shelf next to The French Connection, The Parallax View, and The Day of the Jackal.
Defying what was commercial then (as a compare-‘n’-contrast, note that Armageddon came out a few months before this), Ronin gives us the pleasures of the small details, the tradecraft of both spies and filmmakers: scoping out a meeting place in the nearly silent opening; characters bantering with and threatening each other (“course I’m scared, you think I’m reluctant because I’m happy?”); getting something done with the smallest explosion (and exposition) possible; using not just the frame but the entire space to convey the maximum amount of information, and the actors doing the same thing with their faces and voices. (Watch for Skarsgård’s last moment, one of the great beats of nonverbal acting.) Like actual spies, Ronin does its job without any fuss and goes home.
Oh yeah, there are a couple of the greatest car chases ever here too, although I enjoy what deNiro can do with a cup of coffee even more. Ronin streams free on Amazon Prime.