The past is a great place to visit every once in a while. I personally make frequent trips through time picking up odd bits of music, fashion tips and movies. I am not the only one who does this, writers, artists and even filmmakers also like to get nostalgic for a period. I have seen horror films return to the 1980s, I have seen crime stories go back to the 1940s and I have seen crime films return to the 1970s. So is the case with 1998's Ronin, a movie directed by John Frankenheimer, the man behind the captivating 1960s classic spy thriller The Manchurian Candidate. So, is Ronin a pleasant throwback to the crime thrillers of old or, like most of the stuff that has been forgotten with the passage of time, is it better left back in the past.
Set in France, IRA member Deirdre assembles an international crew of career criminals, including Vincent and Sam, an American. These criminals are hired to steal a briefcase from an unknown party who wishes to sell the contents to Russian agents. However, thanks to some double crosses from treacherous teammates and less than forthcoming management, a simple snatch and grab becomes something a lot more complicated.
Ronin is going to be a hard film to talk about because in my eyes it is not just one film, rather it is more like two films that are connected by a double cross. One of these films is a tight crime caper about a job to steal a briefcase, while the other is a slightly baggy story about the IRA and with so many twists and turns it feels more like a maze than a film.
I really liked the briefcase half of Ronin. It has a great premise and a wonderfully slow build up to the climactic point at which the criminals enact the plan that we have spent the first hour watching come together. We see every second of the crew planning the job and, instead of flashily edited sequences a la Oceans 11, a lot of our time is spent during the quieter moments of downtime, as the crew wait in crummy hotels for the go ahead. As a film made in 1998, it does feel remarkably like the first part of 1955's Rififi, with that slower pace and methodical approach to crime.
However, seeing as this is 1998 we have turned the action up to 11. The setting is continental Europe and you are making a car chase movie. If you know the set up to any French town, you know that you will come across problems in filming fast paced action set pieces in the tiny, windy streets of Nice. This is Ronin's bread and butter, and the crew have given us some of the best car chases I have ever seen and they do it within the tightest of constraints. Perhaps the cramped space makes the action seem faster and more dangerous, but one cannot argue with the technical mastery needed in creating coherent and exciting sequences in those almost unnavigable roads.
The slow pace planning followed by bursts of fast action in tight spaces all fits with a tone that is gritty and dower. The film opens with a definition of Ronin, masterless samurai hiring themselves out as mercenaries, linking our cast with these drifters. It is mainly set in claustrophobic, dilapidated French hotels, tight alleyways and rain soaked streets. The cinematography shines through thanks to the 1080p presentation performed by Arrow Video with the supervision of the film’s cinematographer, Robert Fraisse. With this 2.35:1 aspect ration the images and composition can truly sing especially seeing that there are no issues with the disc. The audio is similarly well mastered with a 5.1 DTS surround soundtrack that make the action sequences all the more engaging.
The tone and plot are helped wonderfully by well-acted characters; Robert De Niro and Jean Reno are entirely believable and likeable as two mercenary criminals. It is their friendship that runs through the film that kept me invested in their plans to get whatever was in that briefcase. De Niro's Sam is methodical and practical; he is also a quite individual, a professional trying to do a job. While others say that Sam has no real meat as a character, I think that De Niro fills out Sam’s bones with some great character work making an audience side with him instantly. The same can be said of Reno's Vincent and watching the two play off each other is remarkably entertaining.
The rest of the cast is similarly great. Sean Bean has a brief but memorable part as a loose cannon munitions man, Stellan Skarsgård is ice cold as Gregor, the computer guy, and Natascha McElhone is an enigma as Deirdre, an IRA member trying to organise the job to get the briefcase.
However, it is when Ronin gets into the second part that it started to lose me. That is not to say that the second half was bad, it just lost the focus that the first had. We still have great characters and a wonderful look to the film, but there is too much obvious philosophical pondering and the story loses track of the double crosses and different agendas.
When you have finished watching this film, you have another film’s worth of extras to keep you entertained, however, with interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes and director’s commentary. Furthermore, the disc that contains the film and the copious amounts of extras is a well-made one, with Arrow’s signature menu layout and ease of use.
Ronin is not a great movie, but it is a well-made piece of film that has a great look and tone, a wonderful cast and some of the best car chases in movie history. These aspects are enhanced by a great transfer done by the crew over at Arrow Video and they include tons of extras to keep avid movie buffs like me entertained for hours and hours.