MGM // 1998 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 18th, 2009
Loyalty is bought, betrayal is a way of life.
Vintage-styled espionage thriller Ronin makes its way onto Blu-ray, following up an already impressive standard definition release. Does this high def version have enough octane to justify a double-dip?
A meeting is called in Paris, with various surly and disreputable men appearing from all corners of the globe for a job. Like the ronin of the Japanese feudal era, these are masterless samurai, ex-spooks and ex-government turned mercenaries, remnants of the Cold War now working for whoever is willing to pay them. An American, Sam (Robert DeNiro) makes contact with the client (Natascha McElhone), and finds others assembled: Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean), and Larry (Skip Sudduth). None of these men have ever met before, but all will be working together for a common goal.
The goal: retrieve a metallic case from a group of armed men who will be defending it with their lives. Slowly, methodically, the group plan their assault, plot out every detail, practice and research their ambush. Sam asks what the contents of the case are, but his Irish employer gives no clues. Unfortunately, the job is green-lit before preparations are ready, and things go badly. In this professional world of mercenary work, loyalties are hard to come by. One of the team finds a better deal, and soon betrays the group.
An underappreciated chameleon of old-fashioned action cinema, Ronin is a minor masterpiece by director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate). It might only be ten years old, but it harkens back to the days of 1970s cinema where films spent money on exotic locations, shot car chases the old fashioned way (driving cars really fast), and heroes were rumpled, ungainly men with bad hair, maligned teeth, and no martial arts training of any kind. But they still kicked all kinds of ass.
Surly scribe David Mamet is largely credited with penning the screenplay under a pseudonym, having taken his name off the project when forced to share writing credit with J.D. Zeik (oh, you writers). One doesn't need to see Mamet's name to quickly recognize ambiguous characters who double-cross each other on a moment's notice. Even DeNiro -- who in the last fifteen years or so has convinced Hollywood he should be allowed to play the same character (namely, himself) in every film -- gets reined in by Mamet's stunted dialogue and gritty no-nonsense styling. We know little about Sam, or any of these characters. We don't even get their real names. It's all in the nuances with Ronin, illustrated in a particularly fantastic early sequence where everyone sits around making small talk, while Sam slowly and methodically sizes everyone else up.
Best known today for its immaculately choreographed car chase sequences, Ronin is a rare treat for adrenaline junkies. Its action sequences are subtle, tasteful and realistic -- no silly CGI effects, no needless explosions, no ultra-heroic slow-motion gunfights. Instead, good old-fashioned Hollywood stunt work and meticulous editing combine to create a vintage experience that harkens back to classics like The French Connection, when car chases meant cars chasing each other. Films like this are becoming financially extinct in modern-day Hollywood, as the cost of exotic location shots and racing expensive cars about gives way to CGI, for cost and convenience. Old dog directors like Frankenheimer are the last of a dying breed, I fear.
While not particularly challenging in terms of its plot, Ronin maintains a deliberate ambiguousness about it that makes for an interesting, unique, and almost timeless experience. Many plot points are left deliberately vague and unanswered -- the contents of the case, the motivations behind many of the protagonists. Ultimately, The film is better for it, giving Ronin a generic feel that compliments the old-fashioned style it sets out to emulate, back when plots were fast-moving and didn't spoon-feed audiences every little detail and nuance. We don't need to know what's in the case. We just enjoy watching people bust heads over it. It is a delicate balance between asking audiences to suspend disbelief without insulting their intellect, but hey, it's a David Mamet script. The guy makes his living this way.
And did we mention the car chases? Boy, people aren't kidding when they remember Ronin for its car chases. One in particular, winding through the tunnels of Paris, is so nightmarish in its complexity and technical planning it literally drops jaws -- especially when pumped out of your surround sound in DTS HD 5.1 master audio...but more on that later. Ronin might not be the flashiest film in the action department, but it picks its scenes with great care. When the adrenaline ramps up, it can hold its own with any flashy CGI action film you care to name. Two strong acts are tempered somewhat in the third as the film races towards its conclusion, which is neither satisfying nor predictable -- but that's how it goes for masterless samurai. You take the work you can find.
Ronin makes its way onto Blu-ray with an exceptionally clean, but a slightly underwhelming transfer. The picture is meticulous, scrubbed clean of any imperfections or print damage, but the distinctive cinematography of the film creates a hazy, smoky quality. As a result, the picture has a subdued, muted color palate that turns every dimly-lit scene into a murky bath of gray tones as if viewed through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. Black levels struggle to assert themselves through all the shimmering, which is a shame, because I really wanted that HD-quality of black level to shine through here. Detail is sharp by standard definition standards, but less so by Blu-ray standards. Again, the picture is tempered by the smoky focus and lack of overall sharpness that pervades the entire picture. Bear in mind, Ronin tries to simulate, in both tone and appearance, the grand old espionage films of the 1970s, and this really comes through here -- the dusty, shimmering quality of the cinematography, the haze and softness all give it a feel of a film much older than it is. This is the style in which the film was composed, so we can't fault the Blu-ray for capturing it accurately. Simply put, it's as fine of a transfer as one will see, while respecting the original cinematic and stylistic intention of the director. The car chase scenes still look fantastic, I must admit.
Audio delivers a very handsome-sounding DTS HD 5.1 master audio track, which is a delightful listening experience from all angles. Dialogue is mixed slightly quiet, which results in loud bursts of activity from the surrounding channels, but it's an action film -- we can forgive the aggressive mix. Bass response is balanced but punchy, kicking to life as needed during high activity. The car chase sequences and gunfights are perfectly rendered, with tire squeals and ricochets arriving exactly where one expects in the sonic space. As with many Blu-ray titles, it is almost worth the upgrade simply for the improvement in audio -- Ronin sounds fantastic. A legacy 5.1 surround track is also included, which (to my ears) sounds identical to the version contained on the standard DVD release. It passes muster, but shakes in its tinny boots when compared to the DTS HD track.
Ronin (Blu-Ray) is a tough sell for people looking to double-dip into high definition. Fans of the film will no doubt have the most excellent Ronin: Collector's Edition, which has a second disc laden with audio commentaries, featurettes, making of documentaries and other supplements. In shocking contrast, this release contains no extras of any kind, save for a meager theatrical trailer. We simply get the film on a single-layer Blu-ray disc, no frills or fuss.
This is a double-dip death sentence; a serious waste of Blu-ray space. The presentation looks and sounds good, but not good enough to justify dumping all the supplementary features -- especially the commentary track with director Frankenheimer! I'm all for duplicating content on a double-dip, if it means a jump into high definition audio and video, but if you're going to make audiences choose which they want, it gets more complicated.
Gritty and meticulous, Ronin remains a fantastic espionage thriller, one that eschews the flashy styling of action films in favor of subtle, old-fashioned action pacing. The jump to Blu-ray is a mixed bag; the excessively stylized and soft visual styling of the film struggle to assert themselves, and the absence of supplementary materials make this a tough sell given the financial premium.
If you haven't added this title to your collection and you don't care about bonus features, this is absolutely the version to get. Everyone else will be satisfied sticking with their Ronin: Collector's Edition, which is a far more complete offering.
Not guilty. It might be a barebones release, but it's too good a movie to receive a guilty verdict.
Review content copyright © 2009 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer