Ronin Special Edition Review
Set in several scenic locations throughout France, Ronin is a relatively intelligent, above average Hollywood thriller, yet for some reason seems to have been overshadowed by some other films of this genre, especially those that share the same leading star, Robert De Niro, such as The Score, and Heat. As in the latter, in Ronin De Niro is paired up with one of the best actors of his generation, Jean Reno.
The two play Sam and Vincent respectively, both men of questionable background who have been drafted in by Deirdre (Natascha McElhone with an equally questionable Irish accent) as part of a team of professionals being paid to obtain a large metal suitcase, presumably containing something very valuable. The rest of the motley crew consists of Sean Bean’s ex-soldier-turned-borderline-psycho, Spence, high-tech expert Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), and getaway driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth). Unsurprisingly, with such an eclectic mix of individuals, some clashes take place, most notably between the hot-headed Spence, and consummate professional Sam.
Before they can attempt to attain the case, they first have to get some guns. Vincent, the group’s link to the French underworld, and so-called “tour guide”, contacts a French arms-dealer, whom they then go to meet. Once they arrive at the rendezvous, Sam notices that all is not right, and shots soon follow. Luckily, they manage not only to escape relatively unscathed, but also to obtain the guns.
Now, all set as far as equipment goes, all that’s left is for Sam and Deirdre to provide reconnaissance. They gather valuable information by visiting the hotel where the men with the case are staying. They also go on a separate night visit, although this time find themselves exploring each other instead.
Finally, after plans have been meticulously prepared, they’re ready to carry out what they’re being paid to do. However, this is far from the end of the film. A series of double-crosses and plot twists take our protagonists Sam and Vincent throughout France, as they visit several recognisable locations along the way. We also learn more about the various characters, at least those who’re still alive, although their backgrounds remain, for the most part, quite sketchy.
Though more intelligent than most films of its genre, as well as having great pacing, dialogue, and acting, it’s the car chase towards the end of the film that's what you'll remember for a long while afterwards. Ranging from the narrow streets of French suburbia, through claustrophobic tunnels, to sprawling straights along the contours of the mountainside (captured stunningly from aerial cameras), and of course keeping up a blistering pace throughout, this is almost certainly the greatest chase in cinema history. This honour may have previously been held by Bullitt, but it’s hard to argue that this doesn’t completely surpass it and set a new benchmark for the future.
The “Ronin” of the title refers to the lead characters of the film – essentially Sam, Vincent, and Gregor. Usually the term refers to samurai whose masters have died, and thus are left to wander the land until they take revenge, only then can they end their life through seppuku (assisted suicide). In this case, I believe the term is used as they are all ex-government employees, be it soldiers or intelligence agents, who are now left unemployed and directionless (presumably after the end of the Cold War); in effect, mercenaries left to accept any jobs they see fit.
The acting is superb, as you might expect from a cast with so many international stars. De Niro is, as always, excellent, coming off as professional and world-weary whilst still retaining a sense of humour and slight light-heartedness. Undeterred, Reno matches his performance, and even with minimal dialogue, almost outdoes him. From a simple friendship formed in tough conditions, to having a clear respect for Sam, Reno communicates Vincent’s emotions flawlessly, often simply with facial expressions. Some of the other actors, such as Bean and Skarsgard, aren’t really given enough screen time to form a truly memorable impression, but there’s no doubt that they do very well with the opportunities they have. Also notable is the bilingual Michael Lonsdale’s brief but first-rate performance as Jean-Pierre, an old friend of Vincent who explains the role of the Ronin to Sam, seemingly giving helping him find purpose and direction in life. McEllhone and Pryce’s Irish accents aren’t entirely convincing, but thankfully are never quite awkward enough to ruin any scenes.
Frankenheimer clearly does not want to insult viewers’ intelligence, and has not ‘dumbed down’ any elements like is usually the case in Hollywood blockbusters. Although there are several examples of this, my favourite has to be when a certain character (very minor spoiler coming up) gets shot, and it’s only revealed later in passing that he was wearing a Kevlar vest. Needless to say, it’s very refreshing not to see a character immediately rip off his shirt and state the complete obvious.
On the whole, Ronin is a much underrated, competent thriller. The two hours fly by, and every element is solid, if not excellent. Even puzzling over the identity of the contents of the Pulp Fiction-esque briefcase never becomes distracting, with its purpose in the film being clear by the end.
The anamorphic transfer is pleasing throughout. Everything is sharp without suffering from any noticeable edge enhancement, and colour levels are consistently accurate. There are strong black levels but no loss of detail, and it’s never too light or dark. There’s hardly any grain or noise whatsoever, with even the nighttime scenes holding up without any faults. Print damage isn’t quite non-existent, but it is very rare indeed, and more or less minute when it does show up. In fact the only fault I could find was that there was slight loss of detail and a little bit of noise during the tunnel scenes in the main car chase. All in all, an excellent transfer.
If you’ve skipped down to this section without reading the rest of the review, then chances are that you want to know just how good the new (for the UK at least) DTS track is. You’ve probably already glanced at the score, so I’ll get straight to the point – this is a very impressive track. Encoded at 768kbps, it’s powerful, clear, and really gives all your speakers a workout. Dialogue and ambient noise, such as the brief scene in the tube station, are a pleasure to listen to, and present an all-encompassing audio environment. However, it’s the action scenes and car chases that really show off this great track.
Gunshots are loud and pack almost as much punch as the machine guns De Niro wields, but it’s the film’s main car chase that you’ll want to show off your surround sound to your friends with. The rev of the engines from the film’s various muscle cars will have you celebrating the day you bought a sub-woofer, and will most likely have you past the stage of merely angering your neighbours, and onto the Richter scale.
Overall, it’s a very impressive track, and one of the best I’ve heard on a DVD. For those who can’t play DTS tracks, the Dolby Digital is a pleasing alternative, and still a good track, although a fair bit less powerful than the DTS one. The difference isn’t really noticeable during the predominately dialogue-focused scenes, but the DTS track is noticeably superior during the film’s many action scenes.
If you already have the previous single disc release and perhaps feel a little uncertain about upgrading purely for a new audio track, then this healthy set of extras (all with the option of subtitles in English as well as other languages) should help you decide.
On the first disc there is a feature length Director’s Commentary, presumably recorded only a couple of years before John Frankenheimer’s untimely death. He talks about plenty of aspects of the film, from the technical practicalities of filming to the messages and feelings he wanted to convey from certain scenes. There are occasional moments when it seems like he’s not quite sure what exactly to talk about next, but it should keep fans of the film interested for its duration.
The bulk of the extras are on the second disc. Firstly there are seven (count ‘em) different featurettes, beginning with In The Ronin Cutting Room (18’09”). In this, editor Tony Gibbs takes us through several scenes, explaining what he felt was important, and what should be the focus, be it the actors, the reaction to the dialogue, or character interaction. He also talks about his history and education, and how he came into the business. He’s definitely not the most interesting person, even talking about his dog at one point, but for anyone interested in editing in particular, or other technical aspects, it’s certainly worth watching.
The second featurette is titled Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Process (13’22”) (surely that should be “actress”), and rather unsurprisingly, is essentially an interview with the only actress in the film. She talks about her character, the filming process, particularly Frankenheimer’s direction techniques, and the other actors on the set. She talks about how chatty Jean Reno is, and how he apparently is “full of anecdotes”, what a pity then that we didn’t have an interview with him instead. Not that this is a bad interview, it’s just rather formulaic, and with very little substance in between her praising the rest of the cast and crew.
Next up is the oh so cryptically titled Composing The Ronin Score (11’23”), with composer Elia Cmilar (thankfully I don’t have to attempt to pronounce that). As you might guess, he talks about how he decided what sort of music to have for the various scenes, the emotions he wanted to evoke, and so on, and how he actually composed the pieces. A very hard job indeed, considering he must get everything right, the subtlety, the timing, and of course the actual sound, so he certainly deserves this featurette.
The next two featurettes relate to the car chases. Firstly, in The Driving of Ronin (14’51”), stunt-car coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez, describes how complex the various scenes were, and that they were so difficult they needed to employ real drivers, including F1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier. It may not be quite as ambitious as The Matrix Reloaded’s artificial freeway, but plenty of work went into it, and as if this didn’t show in the film, you’ll definitely appreciate the difficulty after you see this. The next one is Filming in the Fast Lane (17’01”), which mainly covers the actual camerawork. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr does the talking this time, but there are also interviews with some of the drivers, and other members of the crew.
The penultimate featurette, Through the Lens (17’13”) also focuses on camerawork, but this time showing the gunfights as well as the car chases. Last but certainly not least, Venice Interviews (19’50”) presents us with interviews with some of the leading members of the cast. Firstly, Robert De Niro talks about Frankenheimer, gives his take on his character Sam’s relationship with Dierdre, and a brief, unsuccessful attempt to explain the concept behind Ronin. Sadly after only 5 minutes Robert De Niro’s interview ends, and we are treated to an interview with co-star Jean Reno. He talks about his own character, his great experience working with De Niro, and even gives his own take on Sam and Dierdre’s relationship, apparently a popular subject. Again, after another 5 minutes, I can hardly conceal my excitement as Jean Reno is cut short and we are subjected to yet more of Natascha McElhone stating the complete and utter obvious. It seems there’s no justice, as she gets nearly a full 10 minutes, on top of her own featurette. Certainly a pity, as De Niro and Reno looked like they could have had more to say.
Moving onto the first of the other extras, the Alternate Ending (1’45”) keeps the same conversation between Sam and Vincent, but sheds some more light on Dierdre’s fate. The Photo Gallery (3’31”) is a little more interesting than the usual stills, putting them in a slideshow. Still, they’re only photos when it comes down to it, and I can’t understand why anyone would watch this. The Theatrical Trailer (2’07”) is just that, and does a good job at selling the film, if making it seem a little too much like a generic all-out action movie.
Overall, this is an excellent set to compliment a very underrated film. The company has paid a lot of attention to detail, for example: subtitles in 10 different languages are available for not only the feature, but also the generous selection of extras. The audio-visual quality is top notch, and the DTS track is a joy to listen to. Even if you have the previous single disc release, there should be plenty here to tempt you.
Last updated: 02/08/2018 03:18:17