Ronin (1998) Blu-ray Review: Welcome Back to Cinematic Reality, Kids

At one point or another amidst whatever we may have selected (or been selected) for our respective careers, we will fall from grace. Even if you’re a great filmmaker like John Frankenheimer. In his heyday, the late director (who passed from this world in 2002, shortly after his final contribution to cinema ‒ an HBO docu-drama ‒ premiered) had crafted several groundbreaking films, from the highly fictionalized (but nevertheless well-made) biopic Birdman of Alcatraz, the must-see WWII locomotive heist classic The Train, as well as one of my personal favorites, the 1962 paranoiac conspiracy Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.

Shaping his entire career around taut suspense and social commentary, Frankenheimer’s filmic output took a turn for the worse as the movie-going world went to demanding more realism to wanting less of it once they figured out life wasn’t a bowl of cherries. Nevertheless, Frankenheimer continued to give us his best, even when he found himself helming the rather lackluster sequel to The French Connection, the mutated bear horror of 1979’s Prophecy, or a seemingly harmless adaptation of a classic fantasy which would only balloon into one of history’s greatest box office disasters, the dreaded 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Of course, by the time 1996 rolled around, the overall of quality of cinema had turned into something much, much different. Wherein audiences had previously demanded more realism from Hollywood in the ’60s, the ruling minds of the ’90s decided disproportionate action comedies ‒ usually of the “buddy” variety ‒ from the coke-fueled minds of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer were perfectly acceptable forms of motion picture entertainment. And while it is fair to say some of those movies may have been fun to sit through once at the time, it’s also quite kosher to theorize all it did was further alienate filmgoers from certain aspects of life.

Namely, a pesky little thing called “reality.”

Enter another personal favorite, the 1998 post-Cold War thriller Ronin. Two years before his final theatrical opus, the widely panned Reindeer Games (please pause to breathe if need be), Frankenheimer returned to the action genre he had helped to reshape in the ’60s. And while it may have received its fair share of haters upon its rather rocky debut, there is very little doubt in my mind that Ronin was the last good American action thriller ever made. Even if it was technically a US/UK/French co-production. But hey, sometimes it takes a little teamwork to win ‒ like the time those same three countries united to win that war against the Nazis, for instance!

With a fast-moving and very intricate plot in play and a fine ensemble of established and (then) rising talent pulling it off, Ronin centers on a ragtag group of mercenaries ‒ all with backgrounds in covert affairs for one government agency or another ‒ who assemble in Paris for a job. Here, the one and only Robert De Niro takes the lead as an ex-CIA feller known as “Sam.” Still in possession of the same mental faculties he would later shed by agreeing to appear in movies with Zac Efron or Ben Stiller, De Niro instantly bonds with Frenchman merc Jean Reno, which instantly makes Ronin a damn fine movie right then and there. I mean, all they need now is Sean Bean, right?

Fear not, Millennials, for Mr. Bean is in this one, too. Alas, Ronin was made during Sean’s pre-Lord of the Rings fame, so don’t expect a very big role from him. Thankfully, this enables a number of other great performers to share the spotlight: Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Skipp Sudduth, Jonathan Pryce (fresh from being a Brosnan-era 007 villain, like the aforementioned Bean), and French cinema legend Michel Lonsdale (that’s what, three James Bond heavies in the same film?), who provides what could very well be the most sublime supporting role of all time. And not just because he gets to Frenchman-splain the title to us stupid Americans, either.

As our group of baddies ‒ which they most assuredly are, as they’re perfectly content with slaughtering innocent lives in the process of doing their dirty deeds ‒ roam and ruin the countryside (as well as the lives of its inhabitants) in their quest to track down a mysterious briefcase, it becomes quite clear nothing is going to go according to plan. At least, not to theirs. This not only paves the way for a lot of classic double-crossing intrigue, but a heap of great stunts and actions sequences involving real performers and actual explosions. It says a lot, really, especially considering Ronin was one of the last action films to be made before glossy CGI effects and lens flares ruined everything.

One sequence in particular ‒ an amazing car chase set in one of the underground roadways of Paris ‒ proved to be a little too realistic for some, reminding many of the tragic accident which claimed the life of Princess Diana the year before. While it was probably little more than a total coincidence, I think the similarities may have scared off a few folks from theater queues, a noticeable lack of depth from first-time screenwriter J.D. Zeik (with a little help from an aliased David Mamet) may leave those in search of substance sacked with a slight feeling of emptiness. Ultimately, kids, John Frankenheimer’s Ronin is all about the action. And on that front, it delivers admirably.

Frankly, I would almost go as far as to say Ronin left the film industry with more of a lasting impression than anyone will probably admit to. Though times ‒ and more important, technology ‒ have changed a lot since the film first debuted, many of the elements Frankenheimer employed in this revered reversion to real filmmaking are still being copied to this day by people possessing nowhere near the same amount of skill. Heck, if you were to snip out half of the dialogue, destabilize and speed up all of the action scenes, and replace or remove all references to the very outdated late ’90s technology, there’s a damn good possibility you could pass Ronin off as a modern action film.

That said, nearly twenty years on, I’m still very pleased with the way Ronin turned out. Even if the scenes of Stellan Skarsgård packing up his gigantic box monitor and plug-in PS/2 port keyboard nearly make me wet myself each and every time. I can also proudly say I introduced the film to my teenaged son (who is just as hard to please as I am) and he thoroughly enjoyed it (even if he almost wet himself looking at the technology, too). In fact, the only thing I have grown to regret since the first time Ronin rocked me ’round was the very technology the old-school Standard-Definition DVD was burned on. Thankfully, that situation has been improved thanks to Arrow Video.

In addition to being one of the last good English-language action films ever made, Ronin was also one of the final movie to be shot on actual film, thus making Arrow Video’s new 4K scan of the original Super 35mm negative all the more special. Previously released on Blu-ray in the US as one of MGM’s minor catalog releases, Arrow’s new transfer of the film has been personally approved of and supervised by the film’s cinematographer, the great Robert Fraisse. Presented in its intended 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Arrow leaves no room for errors or inconsistencies whatsoever, leaving us with what is undoubtedly the best-looking home video release the film has ever received.

Aurally, Arrow’s Ronin sports a choice of 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Best I can tell, these are the same audio options we heard on previous digital mediums. And, with the exception of a few new special features, the same can be applied to almost all of this disc’s bonus materials. Everything present on the old DVD (which the earlier catalog Blu-ray release didn’t bother to include) has been ported over to this version, rendering the previous editions as obsolete as box monitors or action sequences devoid of CGI. These recycled extras include a slew of behind-the-scenes featurettes and an alternate ending, which are, sadly, still in low-res SD.

Also carried over from earlier incarnations is an audio commentary with director (and die-hard car enthusiast) John Frankenheimer, who offers up much insight into the production and making-of his many magnificent stunt sequences. The original theatrical trailer (presented in lower-resolution HD) is also included here. New material for this Arrow Video edition include a still gallery (different from the one on the SD-DVD) and an archival TV documentary about Robert De Niro from 1994 with some fanboy named Quentin Tarantino (who later fell from De Niro’s grace after making Jackie Brown). The final new extra is a newly-recorded interview with cinematographer Robert Fraisse.

Arrow Video sets the stage for the throwback Ronin to make an honest come back via a handsomely designed package sporting new (reversible) cover art, sleek slipcover, and collectible insert designed by Chris Malbon featuring liner notes on the late ’90s classic by Travis Crawford. All in all, it’s a nice little offering (even if most of the bonus material has been seen and heard of several times before) for a nifty action thriller that has taken a criminally long time to receive the proper attention it deserves.

May it never fall from grace.

Highly Recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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