Ronin is an intelligent suspense thriller about suspicion, mistrust and betrayal," observes director John Frankenheimer, whose widely acclaimed films, including The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Black Sunday and The Train, have often explored themes of political maneuverings and ambiguous treachery. "While it contains incredible action, at its heart, it's a film that questions our ethics and the meaning of honor and what it means to do one's job."
Ronin is set against the backdrop of a confusing new world in which old alliances have given way to new marriages of convenience, where the line between black and white has become a sinister and unpredictable shade of gray.
"There is a gritty reality and a strong sense of purpose to this film," adds producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., who has produced such films as Hoodlum, Fled and Species I and II. "It's an aggressive story that doesn't get lost in the mechanics of an action film."
Both Frankenheimer and Mancuso were committed to balancing the visceral thrill of solid action with the psychological relationships that propel the story. "This undercurrent of mistrust that runs through the film is as important as the heavy action scenes which, in fact, are a direct continuation of the personal relationships that develop during the story," observes editor Tony Gibbs.
One of Frankenheimer's influences in making Ronin is French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville, who was the director's friend. Like Melville, in his landmark 1967 film Le Samourai, Frankenheimer uses character, not action, to build suspense. "Jean-Pierre and I learned from each other," the director reflects. "He was a great fan of American films in general and I am still deeply in awe of the great European directors' use of character and silence."
Robert De Niro, who stars as Sam, notes that the story unfolds "within a somewhat disenchanted atmosphere and dark, subtle undercurrents. One is never certain where Sam comes from or what his real motives are." Stellan Skarsgård makes a similar observation about Gregor, the ex-spy from the Eastern Bloc. "Gregor appears to be a rather mysterious, cold and sad guy," Skarsgård says. "You don't know where he comes from, where he's going or what his plans are. And you can only guess what his motives are."
Jonathan Pryce acknowledges the unresolved ambiguity that surrounds Deirdre's apparent partner Seamus: "Seamus is meant to be a mysterious character. He may well be the narrative device that serves as the motivator for the story." "The team does what it has to without necessarily believing in it," Frankenheimer explains. "And Sam can walk away after it's done. The damage is tremendous and he's all alone. They've won, but what have they won, really?" The extraordinary collaboration throughout the production of Ronin worked to create something unusual in the conservative, cautious Hollywood of the present a movie filled with a pervasive ambiguity, some of which is never explained. The film's central image the mysterious briefcase Sam and his team tries to recoverm exemplifies that ambiguity.
"Nobody in pursuit of the briefcase knows what is in it, or how it's going to be used," notes Mancuso. "So there is no political or moral choice related to retrieving it. Instead, it's about putting your life on the line for something you don't know because it's your job, which requires a very particular discipline.
"A Japanese samurai would put his life on the line to protect his lord and master that was his mission," Mancuso continues. "But our guys don't have a master anymore they are like the soldiers who came back from Vietnam and felt penalized by society."
"The fun of Ronin lies in its construction, in the way we distill information," observes Mancuso. "The audience is left to decide what to buy or not to buy, what to believe out of what any character says at any given moment, and ultimately to wonder about their very motives and allegiances."
"Ronin is a movie where things are not what they appear to be," adds Frankenheimer. "The whole film is about not knowing what Sam really is, because what he seems to be is not what he really is. A lot of things are left unsaid in the film.
"This film is all about behavior," Frankenheimer concludes. "The characters in the story act in a certain way, and the audience gets to know them through those actions - so we don't neatly explain everything in detail. In the end, there are no victors, only survivors, for every victory carries a tremendous price."
The screenplay for Ronin grew out
of screenwriter J.D. Zeik's fascination with the masterless samurai.
"I became fascinated with the whole notion of the masterless
samurais after reading Shogun when I was fifteen,"
Zeik remembers. "I wanted to use the concept and the title
for a contemporary story. Many years later in Nice, the location
of one of the key set pieces of the story, I stared into the sun
and saw the silhouettes of five heavily armed Gendarmes crossing
the Promenade des Anglais. That image made me
realize that I wanted to set the film in France."
John Frankenheimer, who has a history of filmmaking in France that dates back to The Train in 1963 (other films shot there include Grand Prix, The Impossible Object and French Connection 2), relished the opportunity to plot the production's course through this familiar and beloved terrain.
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