Ronin (1998)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Before passing away in 2002 at the age of 72, director John Frankenheimer created a vast number of thriller and espionage films throughout his long career that lasted until his final days. Some of his most memorable films feature Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra in adventure stories, taking them to places throughout the world. MGM Home Entertainment has now released "Ronin", Frankenheimer's 42nd film, on Blu-Ray Disc, giving this clever action film a nice polish.

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, also. Its narrative slowly develops over the first 25 minutes of the film and then explodes into one of the most riveting thrill rides of modern cinema. 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 presents "Ronin" in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in a solid 1080p high definition transfer. The film was originally shot in Super35, which is sadly an inferior film stock and in the case of Ronin it truly shows. While the transfer is clean and without blemishes or dirt, is does show a slight graininess almost throughout that is fortunately compensated for by the transfer's excellent level of detail and overall sharpness. The disc's color reproduction is meticulously rendering the film's oftentimes intentionally subdued look while also making sure that color accents pop off the screen appropriately. The transfer has somewhat weak black levels that are evident especially in some of the darker interior shots where the poor quality of the production's film stock results in gray shadows – as opposed to black ones – and somewhat excessive noise in the shadows.

For hyperkinetic car chases and hefty action scenes, you need heart pounding music. "Ronin's" soundtrack pays full tribute to that concept. 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. To make it all as impressive as possible, MGM Home Entertainment is giving you the chance to witness the audio track in a DTS HD Master Lossless format, making sure you hear an exact replication of the film's master audio track, without any shortfalls. As expected, the track features heart-attack inducing split surrounds and creates a very active, often hectic, environment with a wide soundstage and a bombastic bass extension.

Sadly no extras are included on the disc, except for the movie's theatrical trailer. While tit is presented in high definition it is of rather mediocre quality, looking more like a standard def presentation. The lack of bonus materials is very disappointing and startling, as the film's previous DVD releases were packed with very cool bonus features, including a top notch commentary track by director John Frankenheimer. None of that is found here.

Frankenheimer's action thrillers have always had their place in my heart and I was eager to see "Ronin" in high definition. 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 has done a decent enough job transferring it to high definition, though the lack of extras is disappointing.