MGM // 1998 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 2nd, 1999
No questions, no answers. That's the business we're in.
With intelligent dialogue, plot twists, and fearsome car chases, Ronin brings a European sensibility to the action movie genre and would make a fine addition to your DVD collection.
This is one of those movies that did not fare well at the box office, and for reasons that are not entirely clear. The cast, lead by the stellar Robert De Niro, is an embarrassment of acting riches and the action sequences are breathtaking. However, I suspect that this movie fared poorly because in many ways Ronin is an action movie anomaly. Aside from De Niro, the cast is generally unknown in this country, the pacing is leisurely, the plot and dialogue are not spoon-fed to the audience, the violence is restrained and not gratuitous, and worst of all, there's no neat happy ending. However, by turning Hollywood formula on its head, Ronin is a refreshing change of pace and deserving of your consideration.
The story begins in Paris, as Sam (Robert De Niro) cautiously checks out a small bar, making sure that, as always, he has an escape route. Inside, he makes wary contact with a small group of mystery men and the equally reticent woman (Natascha McElhone) who has brought them all together. Full names are not used, and only fleeting or cryptic references are made to their backgrounds, but we see enough to know that Sam, Vincent (Jean Reno, as seen in The Professional), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård, once Captain Tupolev in The Hunt For Red October), Spence (Sean Bean), and Larry (Skip Sudduth) are a collection of government agents fallen on hard times but who have valuable talents for hire.
The mystery woman with an Irish lilt calls herself Dierdre, and announces the mission. For hard, cold cash, the team is to set an ambush and take a certain case from a group of armed, professional men who will not part with it willingly. Their ultimate employer remains shrouded in mystery, as are the contents of the case, and the intelligence on the opposition is limited.
Now that the team is assembled, the next concern is to equip them properly. Between Dierdre and Vincent, connections are made with Paris suppliers and a meeting is set for the dead of night. Matters proceed slowly and carefully until Spence cracks under pressure and the suppliers attempt an armed double-cross. Meanwhile, Dierdre learns from Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) that the Russians are bidding for the case, requiring her team to move immediately, ready or not.
Sam is very unhappy with this "amateur night" operation, and in rapid fashion dictates more favorable financial terms and terminates Spence from the team, who seems not to have been as advertised. Dierdre's information puts the case and its guardians in the city of Nice, so the team moves there and sets up their base of operations in an appropriately non-descript house. The group, with Sam clearly being a leader, briefly considers a proposed plan before Sam decides that he needs to know the skill of his opposition. So with Dierdre's assistance, he pretends to be a hapless American tourist, but doing some nifty reconnaissance work at the same time. Nothing is said, but there is a decided attraction between the two, despite the unfavorable circumstances.
The ambush is set for the next day, and all the players get into position. Larry is the automotive expert and Gregor is a technical whiz, with Sam and Vincent providing the firearms and explosives talents. A bang and a boom, and the ambush is well executed, leading right into a high speed chase through the twists and turns of the highways and narrow streets of Nice. The prey is cornered and a fierce firefight ensues, with victory just in sight. Suddenly, Gregor switches the cases and vanishes with the true item, while Sam and Larry discover the explosive replacement just in time.
Gregor meets with a Russian gentleman to sell the case, but his contact is as duplicitous as Gregor, and so Gregor loses a sale but gains a corpse. Sam and Vincent, still looking to get their payday, are looking hard for Gregor and his cargo. With a tip from an old friend, Sam and Vincent, with Larry and Dierdre in tow, arrive on the scene just as Gregor is attempting to negotiate the sale of the case to the Russians once again. Matters get confused very quickly when all parties meet, and worsen even more when Seamus strikes amidst the raging battle. As the dust settles, Seamus has collected Dierdre and the unlucky Gregor, Larry is dead, and Sam is badly wounded. Vincent and Sam retreat to the country villa of Jean-Pierre (Michel Lonsdale), an old friend of Vincent who is a skilled medical practitioner, as well as a Japanese miniature hobbyist.
While Seamus and Dierdre argue about how to proceed, Vincent and Jean-Pierre discuss old times and how to find Seamus and his friends while they wait for Sam to recover. Sam does not need long, and thanks to Jean-Pierre's intelligence, he and Vincent are back on the trail of Seamus, Deirdre, and Gregor as the trio arrives in Paris to pick up the case from where Gregor had secreted it. Sam and Vincent spring an ambush, but it fails when Sam is unable to kill Dierdre. The chase is on once again, this time at hair-raising speeds through the tight roads and claustrophobic tunnels of Paris, including some chilling wrong-way driving (which I haven't seen this well done since To Live and Die in L.A.).
Random chance and skill again works against the dogged Sam and Vincent, as Gregor, case in hand, slips into the darkness, while Seamus and Dierdre make a separate escape. Musing over a cup of coffee, Sam and Vincent realize they need only follow the Russian buyers, who will lead them in turn to Gregor. Discreet inquiries with Vincent's Paris contacts lead them to a skating exhibition featuring famous Russian skater Natacha Kirilova (Katarina Witt). As before, when Gregor and the Russians attempt the transaction, both Sam and Vincent and then Seamus and Dierdre crash the party with drastic result. Sam and Vincent survive to claim the case, but we never learn what happens to Dierdre, or just what was in the case. You remember the business we're in, don't you?
The video is a delight, as I would expect for such a recent movie. The anamorphic transfer is nearly completely free of dirt and defects, video noise is minimal and only in one or two scenes, and I noticed only a minor instance of shimmering. The picture is a little soft, but the contrast is good and the blacks are solid. It is difficult to judge the color saturation, given the deliberate choice of a subdued palette to go along with the gritty, realistic cinematography, but such colors as there are seem reasonably saturated.
The audio is excellent, with a very energetic mix. Dialogue is clearly understood, channel separation is top notch, and the full range of the spectrum is well represented. Sound effects are extremely well placed, as even with just a front soundstage I swore I was hearing effects well to the side, and could nearly have gotten whiplash with the rapid panning from left to right and vice versa. The subwoofer is used well and often, punching up the score, gunshots, explosions, and more.
Bonus features include an alternate ending (revealing just what did happen to Dierdre), a feature-length commentary from director John Frankenheimer (densely packed with insights into the writing and technical details of filming Ronin), and a very nice eight-page insert with trivia and production notes. The main menus use movie-based animation and music and all this is packaged in the preferred Amaray keep case.
When you look at a character and can just see the thoughts whirring around in their skull, that's a sign of a talented actor. This is a pleasant occurrence that is encountered frequently throughout Ronin, as much of the meaning for this the movie is found in gestures, glances, facial expressions, and tone of voice and not in obvious dialogue. If this were a less capable group of actors, this script would have flopped miserably. Thankfully, we are treated to this stellar cast, whose performance is praiseworthy across the board. With three former James Bond villains in one movie (Sean Bean from Goldeneye, Michel Lonsdale from Moonraker, and Jonathan Pryce from Tomorrow Never Dies), what else would you expect?
As referred to at the beginning of the review, the story has a very European feel to it, and not just in the setting or the cast. There is a lot more thinking, a lot less gory violence, and a much more casual attitude towards Hollywood action movie conventions. The less patient among you may find the movie dragging on a bit, what with the repeated instances of ambush, chase, and escape, but I find it creates a realistic feel in compliment to the heavy use of almost documentary style Steadicam shots. If there was one criticism to make, I would have preferred just a little more information on the background of the spook characters and their employers. As it is, we get tantalizing bits about Sam and Vincent, but nearly nothing on Gregor, Seamus, and Dierdre, and absolutely zero on Larry.
The extras are on the light side, and I personally always like to have the trailer, but it's hard to criticize when MGM puts Ronin at such a reasonable ($25) price point and gives us such a high quality anamorphic transfer. Otherwise, I can't find any substantive point to criticize.
Fine actors, exotic (foreign) scenery, frightening car chases, and gunplay, presented in fine DVD style. What more could a guy ask for? I strongly recommend Ronin for rental or purchase.
Honorably acquitted on all counts. If MGM does this well with box-office disappointments, just wait for the James Bond Collection!.
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Never-Before-Seen Ending
* Audio Commentary by Director John Frankenheimer