Release Date(s)1998 (August 29, 2017)
Studio(s)MGM/United Artists (August 29, 2017)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
In the post-Cold War world, many former spies have become freelance mercenaries, operating in a secret world of uncertain loyalties that’s more dangerous than ever before. Ronin tells the story of a group of these agents, who have been hired by an IRA operative to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from an unknown, well-armed party. The pay is premium and there’s only one condition – no questions asked. But there are problems. The briefcase is up for sale and the Russians want it badly. And when you can’t trust the other members of your own team, how can you possibly place your life in their hands?
The word ‘ronin’ comes from the lore of feudal Japan, used to describe Samurai whose masters had been killed and who wandered the land in shame looking for redemption. The comparison is apt; Ronin and its protagonists are as enigmatic as the title implies. Less is definitely more here. In that vein, I can’t bring myself to reveal any more of the plot – you simply have to see it for yourself.
In Ronin, veteran director John Frankenheimer has created a taut, intense and seductive thriller, that places its characters in harm’s way at an absolutely breathtaking pace. As a member of the old school of Hollywood filmmaking, Frankenheimer eschews the use of CGI and digital special effects in creating his action scenes. The result is that extra edge – a heightened sense of realism that’s lacking in so many of today’s thrillers. When you see these car chases (and there are several in the film), you’ll know what I mean. The story takes us on a high-speed tour of France, with 100 mile-an-hour pursuits through city streets, back alleys, and winding mountain roads. Frankenheimer hired a team of French formula one drivers to do these stunts, and actually placed the actors themselves in the cars with the drivers. So when you see Robert De Niro inside a car that’s doing a high-speed, four wheel drift around a Paris intersection, that’s really Robert De Niro. Ronin absolutely raises the bar for this kind of film action – you’ll rarely see better.
The script, as originally written by J.D. Zeik (and doctored by the acclaimed David Mamet under the pseudonym Richard Weisz), is a bit uneven, but is also tight and well-woven, with sparse dialogue and minimalist characterizations. These characters could easily have come across as one-dimensional, but you know everything you need to about them and the impressive cast makes them all seem real and lived-in. Frankenheimer has assembled some serious talent here. De Niro is terrific as always, conveying so much information with just a subtle glance, or a slight movement. The great French actor Jean Reno matches him perfectly, step for step. The two play almost effortlessly against each other – I’d love to see them in another film together. And the rest of the ensemble, which includes Stellan Skarsgård, Natacha McElhone, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce, performs flawlessly. Several other terrific actors are here too in smaller roles and there’s a nifty bit of stunt casting with Olympic ice skater Katarina Witt.
Arrow presents the film on Blu-ray in 2.39:1 1080p HD, mastered from a new 4K scan and restoration of the original negative that was supervised by cinematographer Robert Fraisse. The look of this film has always been muted, dark and moody, with subtle blues and greys in every frame. Many scenes are set at night, or in dimly-lit, grungy environments – warehouses, garages, alleys. The new restoration handles all of this with ease; shadows are deep and dark but never crushed, fine image detail and texturing are excellent, and the colors – though muted – are natural and accurate. There’s moderate grain visible at all times, which is true to the film’s original, gritty look, particularly as it was shot on Super 35 with spherical lenses. The image clarity and detail are also appreciated for another reason: Fraisse and Frankenheimer frequently employ deep focus staging and framing in this film – things are happening in the background that are often as important as the foreground action. Suffice it to say, Ronin has never looked better.
The film’s sound is included here in two lossless choices: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and English 2.0 stereo PCM. The DTS-HD MA presentation appears to be exactly the same mix that was included on MGM’s Blu-ray edition, which is fine; it was terrific then as now. Ronin is a film in which some of the major action sequences take place without background music, you’re just hearing the growl of car engines, the screech of tires, and the crack of gunfire. The clarity and resolution are as good in softer passages as during the more explosive action. The LFE reinforcement is firm and the surround panning is lively and smooth sounding. You’ll hear cars roar up from behind, flash past to one side, and fade into the distance in front of you. Bullets ricochet, crowds scream all around. The dialogue is clean and clear, and the score is well presented, with pulsing staccato and haunting dirges that hint at classic Samurai films. Optional English SDH subtitles are included for those who need them.
In terms of special features, there’s good news and better news. The good news is that, whether you have MGM’s previous Blu-ray or the original DVD special edition, virtually all of the previous extras carry over here. From the DVD, you get the feature-length audio commentary by Frankenheimer, the Alternate Ending (in SD – 1:49), and 7 featurettes (all in SD, including Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane – 17:45, Through the Lens – 17:57, The Driving of Ronin – 15:29, Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Process – 13:57, Composing the Ronin Score – 11:52, In the Cutting Room – 18:56, and Venice Film Festival Interviews – 20:41). There was also an SD video Photo Gallery on the DVD that isn’t here, but no worries as Arrow’s replaced it with a new HD Photo Gallery. From the previous Blu-ray, you also get the Theatrical Trailer in low quality HD (2:28). Now for the better news: Arrow’s gone one step better and added a couple new extras, including You Talkin’ to Me?, a Cinephile appreciation of Robert De Niro by Quentin Tarantino from 1994 (SD – 27:01) and Close-Up: An Interview with Cinematographer Robert Fraisse, which is brand new (HD – 31:27). They’ve also included a nice liner notes booklet featuring photographs and an article by Travis Crawford, as well as reversible cover artwork. Old and new, it’s a lovely package of content that fans of the film will appreciate.
I should note that the very first DVD release also included a DVD-ROM link to an online event on the film (held in March of 1999), but, as I predicted at the time, all of that content is no longer available. Such was (and continues to be) the folly of DVD-ROM and digital streaming-only content.
Ronin is not a perfect film, but it is a very good film. If you’re new to it, it’s a fine, brooding actioner and definitely worth your time, especially if you liked De Niro in Heat and Reno in Léon: The Professional. If you already know this film’s virtues, you’ll be glad to know that it’s aged well… and has never looked and sounded better. Arrow’s Blu-ray is certainly the definitive release of this film and is thus highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt