Director : John Frankenheimer
Screenplay : J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz (story by J.D. Zeik)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Jonathan Pryce (Seamus), Natascha McElhone (Dierdre), Stellan Skarsgård (Gregor), Skipp Suddeth (Larry), Sean Bean (Spence), Michel Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre), Jan Tríska (Dapper Gent), Féodor Atkine (Mikhi), Katarina Witt (Natacha Kirilova), Bernard Bloch (Sergi)
In John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, Robert De Niro stars as Sam, a modern-day version of the movie’s title. According to opening title cards, a ronin was a Japanese samurai warrior whose lord had been killed. Having sworn to protect his lord, the samurai was greatly shamed and spent the rest of his life wandering the land as a gun for hire, thus becoming a ronin.
Ronin is about a group of such men--mercenaries, guns for hire--who are brought together by an Irish rebel fighter, Dierdre (Natascha McElhone), to pull off a complex heist. None of the men know each other; all they know is that they are supposed to steal an important suitcase from a group of “eight to ten” other men who don’t want it stolen. There is no ideology or patriotism here; they don’t even know what’s in the suitcase, and they care only insofar as it relates to their safety. These men are doing the work because they are being paid.
The group of killers also includes Vincent (Jean Reno), a Frenchman who is the man who can get anything; Spence (Sean Bean), an English weapons man; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), a shady-looking Russian computer expert; and Larry (Skipp Sudduth), another American who acts as the driver. We don’t know much about these men, and what we do know we learn from how they act during the heist and its aftermath. Dierdre is the one who has brought them together, but she is not necessarily the one in charge. Her information is coming from a mysterious man named Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), whose intentions and loyalties are not revealed until the end of the film.
Ronin was directed by John Frankenheimer, who in the 1960s and ’70s had made several superb action and espionage movies, including The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and French Connection II (1975). His career was up and down in the 1980s, and in the 1990s he worked mostly in television, directing several well-made movies for HBO. Prior to Ronin, his most recent foray into studio movies had been 1996’s so-awful-it’s-hilarious remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau with Val Kilmer and an incomparably weird Marlon Brando, and after that disaster, some wondered if he would make it back. Thankfully, Ronin’s complex, action-oriented script by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz (actually a pseudonym for David Mamet who was upset that his extensive rewrites didn’t get him sole screenplay credit) gave him the perfect comeback vehicle.
With Hollywood’s overwhelming emphasis on digital effects in action movies, it’s almost shocking to see one that relies on nothing but plain old stuntwork. Frankenheimer and his stunt coordinators stage several exhilarating car chases, one of which takes place in the tight streets and tunnels of Paris (after living in the U.S. for so long, it’s easy to forget how narrow streets are in Europe). Some 80 cars were wrecked or destroyed during the filming of Ronin, and it’s not hard to see how. Cars or all shapes and sizes (not to mention trucks) crash and slam and bang and explode and flip and everything else physics and a little pyrotechnics allow them to do.
The odd paradox of Ronin is that it is both earthly and exotic at the same time. The movie was filmed entirely in France, from country roads outside of Nice, to winding streets on the outskirts of Paris, to the ancient Roman amphitheater in Arles. It gives the film a definite neo-realistic European flavor, which is accentuated by the talented cast of various nationalities. The car chases are superb--some of the most thrilling stunt work since the heyday of car chases in the 1970s with films like The French Connection (1971).
However, at the same time, Ronin has a gritty, down-to-earth quality about it. The characters are not superspys and they’re not dedicated fighters. Rather, they’re aging, desperate people, often untrustworthy and sometimes scared, who are involved only because they feel they have to be. These are dogged, world-weary men who have been through a lot, and probably wish they could retire. There’s no real sense of excitement in what they’re doing, but there is a strong, palpable sense of survival. Sam is constantly asking questions about the mission simply because he wants to get out of it alive. When one character blithely asks if he’s out to “save his own skin,” Sam replies nonchalantly, “Yeah, it covers my body.” He’s not out to impress anyone, although he often does with his honed reflexes, intuition, and skill.
As usual, De Niro is outstanding in the role of Sam. He’s still young and agile enough to wield a machine gun or rocket launcher with authority, but he uses his age well to imbue his character with existential weariness. The script gives him several innovative scenes where he uses his experience to help save his life (I particularly liked one where he poses as a tourist so he can snap pictures of his adversaries and their movements). Jean Reno is also very good in his role as Vincent, who may be the only trustworthy character in the movie. The other actors don’t have as much to do, but they lend the film flavor.
There are a few places where Ronin feels a bit long (it has at least one double-cross and escape too many), and the more sensitive viewers might get a little queasy during one particularly gruesome scene that gives us grisly close-ups of Reno using a scalpel and forceps to pry a bullet out of De Niro’s side. However, if you can stomach that while also following a winding plot of double-crosses and character shifts, you will find Ronin an exciting douse of old-school action filmmaking.
|Ronin Two-Disc Collector’s Edition|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French|
|Distributor||MGM / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 9, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Ronin features the same anamorphic widescreen image that appeared on the original disc released in 1999. The picture is mostly sharp and clear throughout (although there are a few shots that seem a tad soft), with good detail and great blacks. The image may look slightly desaturated, but that appears to be how it was intended to look, probably to align it visually with the European thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s to which it owes such a heavy debt. The only real criticism is that the image does betray some artifacts inherent to the print like dust and a few nicks. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is quite good, with solid bass, great range and clarity, and an enveloping use of the surround tracks, especially during the myriad car chase sequences.|
|The new “Collector’s Edition” of Ronin adds substantially to the supplements that were available on the original DVD. The audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer (who died in 2002), which is somewhat spare, but very informative in a nuts-and-bolts kind of way, is retained, as is the alternate ending, which shows the fate of Dierdre. All other supplements are new to this edition, although many of them are assembled out of interviews conducted during the film’s production. There are a number of making-of featurettes, most of which run between 15 and 20 minutes in length. “Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane” gives an overview of the production, while the rest of the featurettes focus on specific aspects of making the film: “Through the Lens” looks at the film’s cinematography, with lengthy interviews with DOP Robert Fraisse; “The Driving of Ronin” looks at the incredible car stunts and how the stunt coordinators made it appear as thought the actors were driving; “Composing the Ronin Score” is composed primarily of an interview with composer Elia Cmiral; and “In the Cutting Room With Tony Gibbs” looks at what it took to edit the film together. The misleadingly titled “Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Process” features a new interview with the actress, but is much more about her reminiscing about working with Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, et al. than it is about her own method of acting. Also included are original interviews with De Niro, Reno, and McElhone conducted at the 1998 Venice Film Festival, as well as an automated photo gallery.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Metro Goldwyn Mayer / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment