Ronin (1998)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Natascha McElhone, Jean Reno, Jonathan Pryce
Extras: Alternate Ending, Commentary Track

69-year-old director John Frankenheimer has created a vast number of thriller and espionage films throughout his long career. Some of the most memorable feature Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra in adventure stories, taking them to places throughout the world. MGM Home Entertainment have now released "Ronin", Frankenheimer’s 42nd film, on DVD, a release no fan of clever action films should miss.

A group of mercenaries is hired to stage a hit on a group of people who have a metal briefcase in their possession. The rogues do not receive any information about the contents of briefcase, who those people are, what purpose they serve, nor the identities of their employers. The men learn about their individual skills and unique abilities that might be helpful in the mission. Led by Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) who has the only contact to their employers, the men begin to make plans for the mission. When their first action, a simple transaction with arms dealers, produces bodies, the men become more wary and the experienced Sam (Robert DeNiro) establishes himself as their leader. Still without vital information, they set about to take out a convoy of heavily armored cars and armed guards to get their hands on the briefcase, but only hours after starting the mission it turns out that nothing and no one is what he really seems. Though they are men used to concealing their true identities and backgrounds, there is only one way for them to succeed: They have to trust each other, and trust is not exactly a commodity they possess.

"Ronin" is a sensational film that highly resembles the classic espionage thrillers of the 60s and 70s – many of which incidentally director Frankenheimer created, too. Its narrative slowly develops over the first 25 minutes of the film and then explodes into one of the most riveting thrill rides of recent years. The story takes the viewer back and forth, turns protagonists into antagonists within the blink of an eye, and always leaves the viewer in the dark about the exact identities of the good and bad guys. Up to the last minutes of the film’s finale, you will find yourself wondering which character to mistrust and which to put your money on. No one is what he seems and none of them reacts the way you would expect them to. Surprise, tension and clever dialogues create a memorable and very intelligent story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The film also deals with the emotional implications the mercenaries face every day – hence the name "Ronin", the Japanese term for masterless Samurai who have as a result lost their original direction.

The fact that the entire film takes place in Europe, mostly France’s south, gives the movie a dimensionality and look completely different from other Hollywood productions. It immediately establishes the film’s unique signature. Robert DeNiro plays the film’s main character on the hunt for the briefcase. As in many of his darker parts, DeNiro is again in full control of his character. His portrayal of a strong and deliberate mercenary with years of front line experience mixed with his lonely human side creates an intensely memorable performance by the accomplished actor. To support DeNiro, "Ronin" boasts an incredibly strong ensemble cast also made up mostly of European actors. Jean Reno shines in the part of Vincent, an undercover mercenary with a close tie to DeNiro’s character. The subtlety in his play is exactly what the character needs to come across as strongly and believably as he does. Reno gives the character a fierceness with a human touch and the perfect amount of deliberation and determination. Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce, and Stellan Skarsgård also turn in full-bodied performances, giving their characters depth and credibility, making the film an impressively intense experience.

Apart from the intriguing look of the European settings, the film’s most eye-catching elements are the furious car chases. We have not seen extensive car chases with the perfection displayed in "Ronin" for a long, long time. Not only are these chases fast and explosive, they also nicely recreate some of the heart-throbbing tension the drivers must experience while racing through the narrow streets of the French seaport town of Nice, or alongside the winding white cliffs of the French Riviera, only a stone’s throw away from certain death.

MGM Home Entertainment present "Ronin" on a double sided disc, containing the film’s <$PS,pan & scan> version on one side, and its <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> presentation on the other. The film was shot in Super 35 mm, which allowed MGM to create an <$OpenMatte,open matte> transfer for the <$PS,pan & scan> version of the film that reduces the information loss on both sides of the screen. While still clearly evident in certain scenes, it definitely helped make even the <$PS,full frame> presentation very enjoyable. The film’s transfer is clean with sharp edges and plenty of detail. Color reproduction is very good and faithfully recreates the film’s oftentimes intentionally subdued look. Black level and shadow details are notably well preserved and the film’s fleshtones are also rendered very naturally, creating a very balanced presentation of the film on this DVD. No compression artifacts were noticeable in the feature film presentation, are slightly evident in the alternate ending however, presented as a supplement on the disc.

For hyperkinetic car chases and hefty action scenes, you need heart pounding music. "Ronin"’s soundtrack pays full tribute to that idea. The soundtrack also nicely captures the film’s underlying theme very well by the use of a oriental sounding motif that is retold numerous times throughout the film. It is a thoughtful, almost melancholic theme that pays homage to the characters’ lonely, isolated lives in the darkness of anonymity, always on the run and always on the job. Composer Elia Cmiral did a fabulous job of combining these two extremes of the film into a score that embellishes the film perfectly, making the soundtrack an important part of the viewing experience. Presented in a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> track, the soundtrack makes very good use of the split surrounds and creates a very active, often hectic, environment with a wide soundstage and good bass extension. "Ronin" comes in its original English version and also contains a Dolby Digital French language track. Subtitles in French and English captions are available through the disc’s menu. You will also find a very interesting <$commentary,commentary track> by director John Frankenheimer on this disc. Although it contains quite a few moments of silence, it also reveals some very insightful information about the making of the film, the spectacular stunts, the actors, and the directors’ intentions overall. The director uncovers certainly a few things you would not have expected at least I didn’t.

Frankenheimer’s action thrillers have always had their place in my heart and I was eager to see "Ronin". I am glad that the film clearly shows the director’s unique stamp of more traditional and less flashy filmmaking, without losing the pace or excitement of modern films. The film itself is simply much deeper. The characters are more dimensional, the plot has more twists, the dialogues are clever and intelligent, and the complete film invites you to constantly read and evaluate the subtext beneath what you see on the screen. It is a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of the events and their consequences. "Ronin" is a film you simply have to see if you enjoy intelligent thrillers. With Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno starring this vehicle, you can’t go wrong. It’s a masterfully crafted movie and MGM have done a great job transferring it to DVD.