Some people would be confused by a movie named for disgraced samurais, yet features no Japanese actors. Not our Judge Eric Profancik.
"What's in the box?"
Ronin did not do well during its theatrical release. I, however, am one of those that did make it out to the multiplex to catch this intelligent thriller from John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix, The Manchurian Candidate (1962)). As I sat and watched the beginning of the story, I was extremely nervous and frustrated. During the first ten minutes, I hard the hardest time understanding the accents. I just couldn't pick it up, and then suddenly, everything just flowed. I held that against the movie for many years, but I finally let it go and picked up the DVD no more than a year ago. Oddly, each time I've watched the film since then, I still can't understand those accents in the beginning. I have to turn on the subtitles every single time. It's just one of those things.
Now here we are with a double-dip on Ronin. I'm not going to spend much time on the movie itself; instead, I'll make sure you know whether this new release is worth your money.
And wouldn't you know it? I still can't understand those dang accents.
Facts of the Case
Retired Judge Sylvain reviewed the original DVD release and in his review you'll find an exceptionally thorough analysis of the movie's plot. For that complete discussion, please visit his review. For those wanting it quick and dirty:
A group of men are brought together to plan an ambush to steal a briefcase. Inside that case is something very important that many different parties want. The plan will be formulated and put into action, and it will lead everyone throughout France in one harrowing chase after another. Who will end up with the briefcase?
When talking about Ronin, three things must be discussed: its smart story, its great acting, and its spectacular car chases.
Calling the story "smart" can be misinterpreted. It should be taken in the context of the action thriller, so that you know that Ronin is far from the typical action fare. In that regard, it's an intelligent, adult thriller with characters and complications that aren't cut from the usual Hollywood cloth. The audience has to think just a little bit, pay attention, and watch what everyone does to get the most out of it. Doing so will treat you with a rewarding experience. Ronin maintains its distance from Hollywood by embracing a European-style to its filmmaking. With a subdued palette, dark shadows, and real, "lived in" locales, the movie has a gritty, decidedly edgy feel to it. Combine that with the story and Ronin is an enticing experience.
Again, Ronin isn't all that deep or mentally challenging, but the actors elevate the material beyond the words on the page. Starring Robert De Niro (The Score), Jean Reno (Mission: Impossible), Natascha McElhone (The Truman Show), Stellan Skarsgård (The Hunt for Red October), Sean Bean (Goldeneye), and Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies), Ronin is an ensemble piece at the mercy of the ensemble. The movie could sag without a strong cast getting into their parts. But they do, and the movie succeeds. I could praise each and every one of them for something they did in the movie, but I'm going to focus only on the big guy, De Niro. He's done so many films (check out his IMDb filmography!) and many of them are crap. Mixed in there, more in the way past than recent past, are his biggest hits, when he came to the world's attention. You think De Niro, and you have to talk about The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, Part II, and Taxi Driver. But then there's Rocky and Bullwinkle, Analyze That, and Meet the Fockers and you go, "What happened?" De Niro takes too many roles than he shouldn't. He's an exceptional actor, and his role as Sam in Ronin fits him like a glove. Once you can ignore the mole on his face, you forget it's De Niro. It's just Sam. He's way too smart, way too good, and you just crave to know more about him. De Niro becomes the part, and he elevates everyone around him with a grounded, superb performance.
Sadly, when Ronin is mentioned, it's not because of De Niro's performance. It's for the amazing car chases sprinkled throughout the film, culminating in a stunning chase through Paris. Oh, did I mention that over half that chase is going the wrong way through heavy traffic and through those notorious tunnels? Car chases are beyond count in cinema, and the Paris chase is one of the best in cinematic history. Why is that? Well, you really should watch it for yourself to find out. Still, it looks real, it feels real, it lasts for more than ten seconds, it's not edited down to one-second installments, and it's really fast! If for nothing else, you owe yourself the opportunity to lose yourself in the mayhem.
Now let's go on to the real business of discussing the double-dip, double-DVD release. If you own the previous release, you own the first disc in the Collector's Edition. Yes, the first disc is a simple repackage of the original release. It's exactly the same from the transfers down to the bonus materials. Well, the menus are different, but you get the idea. Unlike my fellow Judge, I am not as impressed by the 2.35:1 anamorphic print. While good in most parts with accurate colors, decent sharpness and details, and rich blacks, I did find a bit too much dust, shimmering, and haze to my liking. DVD technology has come quite a way since the first release, and Ronin would have been well served with a quick run through the processor to clean it up a spot. The same holds true for the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. On the whole, it is a vibrant mix with clear dialogue and good use of the surrounds and bass; however, I did find the center channel to be a bit weak at times, which could have been easily remedied.
As I mentioned, you'll also find the original bonus materials on Disc One: Frankenheimer's commentary track and an alternate ending. Luckily, the commentary track is informative and interesting. He gives a fun talk on lots of the stuff we want to know about movies. Perhaps you might wonder why there isn't a new commentary. Is it simply because the first one is so good we don't need a new? That's a possibility. The bigger truth is that Frankenheimer died in 2002. With the alternate ending (two minutes), you will learn the fate of Natascha's character.
Disc Two contains a wealth of new material. "New" meaning new to the DVD, not necessarily newly created—most (not all) of what I saw appeared to be material recorded during and immediately after the filming of Ronin. The new bonus items are:
• "Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane" (18 minutes): From the title, I expected this one to focus on the car chases in the movie. That is not the case, and, instead, we learn how Frankenheimer took the reins and created our intelligent, adult thriller. I liked how it gives us enough background on the man and directly applies it to Ronin.
• "The Driving of Ronin" (15.5 minutes): Here's the segment that talks about all of the car chases in the movie. You learn of Frankenheimer's expertise in the area and how he brought together the best stunt drivers to get it done.
• "Natascha McElhone: An Actor's Process" (14 minutes): Natascha, who plays Deirdre, the woman who brings all the men together to steal the briefcase, talks about her strong role in this testosterone-laced movie. She discusses the part's demands and her enjoyment in making the movie.
• "Composing the Ronin Score" (12 minutes): Elia Cmiral discusses his joy in composing for his first major theatrical release.
• "In the Cutting Room" (19 minutes): Tony Gibbs discusses his last minute addition to the editing team, and the creative joy found in working with Frankenheimer.
• Venice Film Festival Interviews with Robert De Niro (6 minutes), Jean Reno (5 minutes), and Natascha McElhone (9.5 minutes) (20.5 minutes, total runtime): My least favorite segment, you get rather dull interviews with the stars. I had forgotten just how boring De Niro can be in real life. And how did Natascha get the most time?
Finishing it all out is an animated photo gallery (3.5 minutes), previews for The James Bond Ultimate Collection (looking like a nice double-dip), Raging Bull Collector's Edition, and Black Hawk Down Extended Edition.
The one thread that connects the bonus items on this DVD is that they are from a different point of view. I can't think of any other DVD I own or have reviewed where you get bonus materials that give such time to the director of photography, the editor, the composer, and the lead supporting actress in the film. It all comes together to give you an askew view to the making of the movie. It did take some adjusting at first, as you want more "directness." And, as much as I tried not to, I missed some of that standard material. A little bit more of that would have given the new material a more balanced appeal. In addition, there's just a bit too much adoration for Frakenheimer. It appears in every featurette. (In this case, he probably does deserve it.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Just two minor nitpicks here, one for the movie and one for the DVD. I believe Jonathan Pryce speaking with any accent that isn't his natural one is a waste of a delicious voice. His awful Irish brogue in Ronin is vulgar when compared to his natural tones in Tomorrow Never Dies. The simple, melodic nature of his voice is a tragic loss. Then, the DVD prevents you from switching subtitles on the fly. You're forced back to the menu to change them.
In the world of never-ending double dips, we can be glad of at least two things with this latest addition to the collection. First, that there is an abundance of additional materials included in the release. Secondly, many will be glad it's simply called a "Collector's Edition" and nothing cleverer like "Ronin: What's in the Box Edition." Sadly, we can take MGM to task for their sheer laziness with Disc One. A simple copy of the previous release without any reworking? Shame.
Let's lay out all the various permutations of whether this double-dip is for you:
• I don't own the original disc. You should definitely buy
Ronin: Collector's Edition is hereby found not guilty of speeding and reckless endangerment.
MGM is hereby found guilty of plagiarism with its exactly copy of its original disc.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director John Frankenheimer
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