Robert De Niro Is The Best Spy In This Espionage Thriller That Keeps You Guessing

By Britta DeVore | Updated

robert de niro
Jean Reno and Robert De Niro in Ronin (1998)

Known for his no-nonsense roles in gangster-centered films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Irishman, and Heat, it should come as a surprise to no one that Robert De Niro makes one fine spy. In John Frankenheimer’s (The Manchurian Candidate) 1998 action thriller, Ronin, the critically acclaimed actor proved exactly that. Now, audiences can catch the high-octane flick as it’s currently streaming on Max.

Ronin, starring Robert De Niro as a spy with a mysterious past, is streaming on Max.

Robert De Niro leads a star-studded cast in Ronin, which is a story that centers around a crack team of trained operatives who have been sent on a mission to obtain a mysterious briefcase while dodging enemies. While on their high-stakes search, questions arise for the team members as they try to decipher between fact and fiction and good guy and villain. With top-notch stunts, the action is sure to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

Along with Robert De Niro, Ronin also starred Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Natascha McElhone, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce. Holding its own at the box office, the title raked in $70.7 million against its $55 million budget, making it not the top seller that those tied to the feature were hoping for but also by no means a money loser. 

While he knew that he could turn to special effects to give Ronin the look that he was after, John Frankenheimer wanted to push things over the edge and keep it as real as possible.

From left to right: Sean Bean, Skip Sudduth, Stellan Skarsgård, Jean Reno, and Robert De Niro
in Ronin (1998)

As previously mentioned, the film was highly praised for its intense stunt action that saw top-speed car chases performed by some of the best race car drivers in the business. While he knew that he could turn to special effects to give Ronin the look that he was after, John Frankenheimer wanted to push things over the edge and keep it as real as possible.

Because Robert De Niro is no Tom Cruise – that is to say he didn’t gleefully jump behind the wheel – Ronin‘s production team brought in Formula One driver Jean-Pierre Jarier and fellow revered speedsters to make the unbelievable scenes come to life. 

In the end, the director’s loyalty to the vision would pay off as critics praised the film’s car chase scenes as well as its well-choreographed gun fights. Of course, they also had plenty of kind words to say about Robert De Niro’s performance, even though Ronin was more seen as a fast-paced piece of action rather than a deeply thought drama. 

While John Frankenheimer and Robert De Niro’s work on Ronin was the only time they joined forces on a production, the BAFTA-nominated filmmaker boasted a long history of signing on major names for his projects. From his early titles, including Birdman of Alcatraz, which starred Burt Lancaster, and The Manchurian Candidate, which was led by a trio of Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra, and Laurence Harvey, the director worked with the best of the best.

Later in his career, he would back films, including the Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer-led The Island of Dr. Moreau and the final feature before his death, the Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron-starrer, Reindeer Games.

robert de niro
Robert De Niro in Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro’s Other Work

Robert De Niro, aside from his time in Ronin, has also dipped his toe into the spy-thriller genre a handful of times before in films including The Good Shepherd and Killer Elite. In The Good Shepherd, De Niro appears opposite an incredible cast that includes Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie. The film, which De Niro also directed, centers around the beginning days of the CIA.

Then there’s Killer Elite, a 2011 spy-centered action flick helmed by Academy Award-nominated director Gary McKendry. Based on true events, the feature follows yet another highly revered and heavily trained special-ops agent on his most dangerous mission yet.

Along with Robert De Niro, Killer Elite featured Jason Statham in the leading role as well as Clive Owen, marking another film for fans of Ronin to put on their list.

While he may be known for his roles in action-packed blockbusters, whether he be a rough and tough gangster, a sneaky spy, or a deadly taxi driver, Robert De Niro has proven himself time and time again to be a major player in the world of comedy.

Sure, he broke onto the scene with Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America, and thrilled fans in films like Ronin, but he’s also delighted audiences with his softer side in pictures such as Falling in Love, Analyze This, Meet the Parents, Stardust, and Dirty Grandpa.

robert de niro
Robert De Niro in Ronin (1998)

Even at 79 years old, Robert De Niro is showing no signs of slowing down as this year alone, he has a handful of projects either out or coming out, including About My Father, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Ezra. Up next, he’ll be returning to his gangster roots in Wiseguys and the action-thriller Tin Soldier. Check out De Niro’s performance in Ronin, now streaming on Max.