Features and Columns · Movies

24 Things We Learned from John Frankenheimer’s ‘Ronin’ Commentary

“We were afraid we were gonna get thrown out of France.”
Commentary Ronin John Frankenheimer
By  · Published on August 30th, 2017

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Ronin received a slick new Blu-ray release this week courtesy of the fine folks at Arrow Video, and it’s a definite upgrade over previous versions. Re-watching it serves as a reminder that not only is it a great flick with one hell of a car chase, but that it’s the rare pre-Fury Road action thriller to seat a woman behind the wheel for that action sequence. After giving the movie a spin I decided to do it again with the director’s commentary track.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

Ronin (1998)

Commentator: John Frankenheimer (director)

1. He lived in Paris for several years and knows it “better than I know any other city.” That’s part of what inpired him to open the film in Montmartre.

2. The opening pub interior and surrounding cobblestone street is a set.

3. He received notes saying dialogue was needed to “explain the man in the wheelchair, but I just refused to do that.” It’s enough for us to know that he’s a source for connecting employers to gun-wielding employees.

4. He’s a big fan of Stellan Skarsgard, saying “he’s so intelligent and he brings so much to his role.”

5. They used a CCE process in post-production which “exaggerates the blacks and [reduces] the primary colors.”

6. “I have always been an advocate of depth of field,” he says, adding that its appeal rests in the fact that you can have something interesting in the shot at all times.

7. There’s an ordinance in Paris stating “quite clearly that you cannot fire guns” within in the city limits, but he credits the French authorities for going above and beyond in helping the production get around this law. Apparently the restrictions were put in place specifically because of film productions firing off weapons at all hours and raising the ire of the locals.

8. They had a French Formula One driver actually handling the good guy’s car in the first chase scene.

9. He wasn’t sure what to do with the character of Spence (Sean Bean) once he was removed from the team, and he toyed with killing him off via an off-screen shot or later insert. Instead he chose to go against the grain and let Bean live.

10. The film that’s influenced him more than any other is 1966’s Battle of Algiers. “It’s one of the most perfect films I’ve ever watched.”

11. They decided early on that they were going to do as many of the car scenes as possible with the actual actors in the actual cars. Each of them spent time in High Performance Driving School before filming began.

12. There’s a stuntman driving the car that explodes and flips frontwards at the 46:15 mark. “He pressed the button that exploded that thing. There isn’t enough money tax-free in Switzerland to ever make me do anything like that.”

13. He was named “Highway Menace” in his college yearbook for his wild and reckless ways on the road.

14. “I think seeing people shot at close range is hideously violent,” he says, so he wanted a way to avoid that with the scene where Gregor (Skarsgard) shoots the man in the car. He turned it into a transition instead with the blood spattering the window cutting into the red of the ice skater’s sweater. “You be the judge as to whether it worked.”

15. The two stuntmen who flip over the railing at 1:06:39 did so accidentally. They were supposed to stop at the railing, “but they didn’t. They didn’t have any pads on either. That’s why it looks so real.”

16. The driving interiors at 1:09:57 are the only ones done via a green screen, for scheduling reasons, and he knows it doesn’t look totally real.

17. “I love to make miniatures,” he says, adding that one of his hobbies is making miniature cars, soldiers, airplanes, and more. It’s why he wanted Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale) to share the same interest as a way of explaining the film itself via his miniature models of the 47 ronin warriors.

18. He was advised to cut the opening text defining the “ronin” term as the scene of Jean-Pierre’s explanation would otherwise be redundant. He disagreed.

19. They used four BMWs and five Peugeots for the big third-act chase scene, and one of each was cut in such a way as to allow the actors to appear to be driving at high speeds while the car was actually being towed through the streets.

20. 300 stunt drivers were employed during the big car chase, most of them behind the wheels of the cars coming at the main characters.

21. “I’d always wanted to shoot an ice-skating event,” he says shortly before he shows a character shoot an ice skater.

22. He told his extras for the crowd scene at the skating rink that it only takes one of them to ruin an entire scene, and he says they all did a fantastic job here.

23. The inclusion of chatter about the Irish peace treaty was added as an afterthought because he felt a “bigger picture” was needed as part of the wrap up.

24. The original ending featured Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) arriving outside the cafe, deciding not to go in, and then being snatched by the IRA. “We tried that ending, and the audience really hated it.” It’s the one he prefers though.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“I don’t believe that violence happens in slow motion.”

“It was a conscious decision to watch him throw up.”

“He was the Laurence Olivier of Czechoslovakia.”

“If you’re in a crowd with guns this is the kind of thing that happens, and you just can’t get away from it. Innocent people get shot.”

“I don’t think any of you consciously come to a movie wanting to hate it. I think you want to like what we do, but if we disappoint you or we lose you you’ll never forgive us.”

Buy Ronin on Blu-ray from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Ronin is a terrific action/thriller, and it holds up well under repeat viewings. Frankenheimer’s commentary offers a wealth of technical detail and praise for his cast and crew, but he does get caught up in his movie more than once leading to a handful of silent stretches. It’s still well worth a listen though for fans, and Arrow’s new Blu-ray is the way to go if you don’t already have the film in your library. Hell, even if you do already own it this new transfer is worth the upgrade.

Related Topics:

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.