Crossing the line movie car chases: Ronin

We celebrate one of cinema's best car chases, and the tactics within it, as we look ahead to Need For Speed Rivals' release.

As EA prepares to launch its latest racing game, Need For Speed Rivals, we’re marking the occasion with a look at 10 classic chases and pursuits from the movies. Although taken from a range of different movies, they all feature moments where a character crosses the line at some point – that is, they make a split-second choice or manoeuvre that completely changes the complexion of the race.

You can also vote for your favourite chase, and next month, the film with the most votes will be screened in full in a central London cinema.

The film

Before Ronin came out in cinemas in 1998, there were plenty of reasons to look forward to it with enormous anticipation. First, it was directed by John Frankenheimer, a veteran filmmaker who successfully managed to craft a superb sequel to The French Connection, and directed such movies as The Manchurian Candidate and Grand Prix. Second, its snappy dialogue was at least partly written by the great David Mamet. Then there was the cast, which included Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone and Stellan Skarsgard.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a director famed for his ability to stage driving scenes, the car chases in Ronin are sublimely realised. In fact, the chases may be the major reason why Ronin is remembered as such a great 90s thriller, since its plot is a little bit confusing.

Robert De Niro plays Sam, an American who heads up a multi-national crew of criminals-for-hire. Sam’s crew is hired by IRA member Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) to recover a mysterious briefcase, the contents of which are never revealed. Throughout, there are double-crosses and triple-crosses and sudden changes of allegiance, such that it’s almost better to let the whole who’s-doing-what-to-who aspect of the story slide and just enjoy the fights and crashes instead.

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It’s here that Frankenheimer’s technical brilliance comes to the fore, and Ronin‘s centre piece – an eight-minute chase through the middle of Paris – is rightly regarded as a classic of its kind.

The rivalry

For reasons too convoluted to detail here, Sam and his side-kick Vincent (Jean Reno) end up chasing Deirdre and her partners in crime Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) and Seamus (Jonathan Price) through the streets and highways of the French capital. Oddly, given De Niro’s star status, it’s Deirdre who has by far the better vehicle: she has a BMW M5 which, with its rear wheel drive and lots of power, is a perfect getaway car. Poor old De Niro, meanwhile, is lumbered with a rather less charismatic Peugeot 406 – the kind of car you’d choose for its spacious boot and comfy suspension rather than its ability to keep up with fleeing bad guys.

The driving

De Niro’s Sam may be at a disadvantage when it comes to power and handling, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it as the action unfolds; with (we’re guessing) skilful use of his handbrake, Sam manages to careen round corners and hairpin bends almost as well as Deirdre and her much more tail-happy BMW.

Throughout, both Deirdre and Sam portray the same level of control and calmness under pressure – even when driving up on pavements to avoid car transporters, sending pedestrians ducking for cover, they refuse to lose their cool.

And through patience and sheer determination, Sam gradually eats into the head start Deirdre initially enjoyed, and as the pair enter a claustrophobic tunnel, the chase really begins to hot up.

Crossing the line

In these articles, we’ve tried to highlight the moment where one of the characters in each car chase crosses a moral boundary – that invisible line between simply driving quickly and doing something extremely dangerous in order to gain the advantage. In Ronin, it’s Deirdre who turns out to be the least moral of the two drivers. Just look at the bit where, shortly after she’s entered the tunnel, she gains the attention of the police. Without a moment’s hesitation, she gives the patrol car a cunning and rather cruel nudge, causing it to bounce off a raised central reservation and roll over in a spray of sparks.

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Sam, on the other hand, is a true gentleman racer, honking his horn and flashing at other drivers to warn them of his arrival. Sure, a few cars get damaged as they move aside in his wake, but at least he’s not forcing drivers into potentially deadly situations, as Deirdre is.

Throughout this scene, Frankenheimer directs with low-key, unfussy brilliance. Robert Fraisse’s gritty cinematography is kinetic and exciting, with the camera’s low mounting in some shots recalling the classic short film, C’était un rendez-vous, which was also shot in Paris. It’s worth pointing out Ronin‘s influence on later directors, too, with Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Supremacy showing several parallels with this film’s classic chase – aside from the dank, realistic tone, The Bourne Supremacy’s Moscow pursuit also contains a lengthy sequence in a tunnel, and also a brief scene where a fleeing vehicle collides with a bus.

There’s a real sense here that Frankenheimer and his team are thoroughly enjoying this anarchic blast through Paris. How else can we account for the scene’s sheer length and scale of destruction? By the time Deirdre’s exited the tunnel and narrowly avoided embedding her BMW in the side of a bus, we’re only halfway through the sequence.

Knocking a man off a motorbike and causing all kinds of accidents in her wake, Deirdre goes hurtling through the Bir-Hakeim Bridge next to the Seine river – a distinctive location which would later be employed in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Heading out of the city and through another tunnel, the driving grows ever more desperate, and Frankenheimer continues to turn up the tension. So by the time the two cars are hurtling the wrong way down a French freeway, with Deirdre’s accomplices letting off the odd bullet to slow Sam down, it’s obvious that things are getting really out of hand.

Somehow, Sam retains his composure even when bullets are bouncing off his Peugeot’s wing mirror, and with an equally cool and calculated shot from Jean Reno’s pistol, one of Deirdre’s tyres is blown out, and her BMW sent flying off an unfinished section of motorway.

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Despite the superior horsepower under the bonnet of Deirdre’s BMW, Sam’s determination and laser-guided pursuit skills win out. Although Deirdre and one of her accomplices scrambles to safety, her posh BMW is totalled, and with a final explosion, one of the finest car chases in cinema history ends with a resounding bang.

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