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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 3/9/99



Ronin
1998 (1999) - MGM

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Ronin DVD Film Rating: A
Ronin is a sleek and sexy thriller of the old school - no digital effects here. Just a tight plot, an absolutely terrific ensemble cast working in top form, and some of the best car chases ever captured on film. This is better than Bond.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A+/B
The anamorphic widescreen video quality is outstanding. The audio matches it perfectly, with crisp, clear 5.1 surround. There's a great commentary track and an alternate ending included.

Overall Rating: A
I have absolutely no problem saying that this is a must-have disc. The quality alone would make it worth a purchase, and the film itself ranks among the best of the genre. Pick it up now and be glad you did.

Specs and Features

121 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer, alternate ending, DVD-ROM web links to additional content and an online event, film-themed menu screens with animation and sound, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English & French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English and French, Close Captioned

Review

In today's post-Cold War world, many former spies have now 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, and Ronin is as enigmatic a film as its title implies. Less is definitely more here. And in that vein, I just can't bring myself to reveal any more of the plot - you simply have to see it.

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 DeNiro inside a car that's doing a high-speed, four wheel drift around a Paris intersection, that's REALLY Robert DeNiro. Ronin absolutely raises the bar for this kind of film action - you'll never see better.

The script, as originally written by J.D. Zeik (and doctored by the acclaimed David Mamet under the pseudonym Richard Weisz), is tight and well woven, with sparse dialogue and minimalist characterizations. These characters could easily come across as one-dimensional, but the impressive cast makes them all seem real and well-lived. You may not know much about these people, but you know everything you need to. And what a great cast it is - Frankenheimer has assembled some serious talent here. DeNiro is terrific as always, conveying so much information with just a subtle glance, or a slight movement. Jean Reno (The Professional) matches him perfectly, step for step. The two play almost effortlessly against each other - I can't wait to see them in another film together. And the rest of the ensemble, which includes Stellan Skarsgard, Natacha McElhone, Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce, performs flawlessly. There's also several other terrific actors seen here in smaller roles, and a nifty bit of stunt casting with Olympic ice skater Katarina Witt.

The video quality on this DVD, in both anamorphic widescreen and full frame, is outstanding. The look of this film is very muted, with subtle blues and greys in every frame. The film is dark and moody, with many scenes set at night, or in dimly-lit, grungy environments - warehouses, garages, alleys. Given the visual darkness of the film, there could easily have been trouble with the MPEG-2 compression, but that isn't the case - it looks fantastic, with great shadow detail. That's also important, as the film uses a great deal of deep focus - things are happening in the background that are often as important as the foreground action. All in all, the print is very clean, and the transfer is excellent. Also, the film was shot using Super 35 with spherical lenses, so you're not losing as much in the full frame as you would in a regular pan & scan transfer. Don't fret if you prefer it to the letterboxed image on a standard 4x3 TV - both look very good.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also excellent. 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 bass conveyed by the subwoofer channel is thunderous where appropriate. The panning is also good - great surround effects can be heard in this film, yet it's all entirely natural 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 - in short, this is a fully immersive mix. The dialogue is also completely natural, and the score is equally well presented, with pulsing staccato and haunting dirges that hint at classic Samurai films. This is simply Dolby Digital 5.1 audio at its finest.

The extras on the DVD are also generally good, if a bit skimpy. The full-length audio commentary by Frankenheimer is terrific - very engrossing, and one of the better that I've listened to. You really get a sense of Frankenheimer's skill as a craftsman when it comes to his work. It's absolutely fascinating to listen as he describes the importance and deliberateness of each of the film's transitions, the composition of action within the frame, the use of deep space. He talks about the subtext present in the script and the actor's performances, why he prefers the violence in his films to be quick, the sense of hyper-realism he strives to achieve. This is a true insight into his thought process while directing. There is also an alternate ending included on the disc, and it's interesting to hear Frankenheimer describe why it was omitted, despite the fact that he liked it. But I would have at least liked to see a couple of theatrical trailers included.

Ronin does have web links to a live online event, for those who own PCs equipped with DVD-ROM drives, and Internet access. To access it, you simply insert your disc in the drive and log on to http://www.mgm.com/dvd/ronin. You will be able to pre-register for the event, which will occur at 8pm EST (5pm PST) on Sunday, March 14th, 1999. At that time, you'll be treated to a tour of the making of the film with director Frankenheimer as your host. And for those who miss the event, it will all be available for replay at any later time. You can download the trailer from the site, and the presentation will cue behind-the-scenes footage on your DVD, that is not accessible in any other way. This is very cool, but I have mixed feelings about web content for a DVD title. While it is a good way to expand the experience of the disc, not everyone can access the material (if you have a Mac, or no Internet access, you're out of luck). Worse, there's no guarantee as to how long this material will continue to be available. So a year from now, or five years from now, it may disappear. I guess I'm old fashioned, but I prefer to have it all on the disc.

Bottom line

All in all, this is a great DVD. You really can't go wrong here - the flick is absolutely first-rate, and the extras you do get are very cool indeed. I do have to give MGM credit for attempting the online event thing too. And the quality on this disc is outstanding all around. Keep in mind that this isn't a film that answers all of it's questions. It doesn't even really try, which I find ultimately more satisfying anyway. All I can say, is that if you even think you might dig Ronin, don't hesitate to give it a try.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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