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Ronin (1998) Print E-mail
Thursday, 12 March 2009
ImageRonin takes a simple directive – "Get the case" – and turns it into a high-octane, gritty, action-espionage flick.  Director John Frankenheimer buckles us in and takes us on a wild tour of Paris and the French Riviera as we follow a team of mercenaries on their quest to retrieve a coveted metal attaché. Nobody really knows what's inside, but it's valuable enough to incite a load of violence.  The game of cat and mouse begins in an abandoned Parisian warehouse, where Irish ringleader Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) readies her ragtag team of rogue "professionals" for the dangerous job.  Like the long ago disgraced Samurai of centuries past, Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean), and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) have been let go by various covert organizations and now work freelance, but their independent status makes them difficult to trust.  Double-crosses abound, and as the pressure rises to track down the elusive case, so does the body count.

Ronin is a good thriller on its own, but it's best known for its heart-stopping car chases, which stand as some of the most intricate and dazzling ever filmed.  If you've ever wondered what it's like to drive the wrong way on a crowded freeway at full throttle, 'Ronin' will duplicate the adrenaline rush.  Frankenheimer brings an amazing amount of realism to these sequences, allowing us to truly feel the velocity, experience the artful dodging, and absorb the drivers' intensity as they careen down Parisian sidewalks and zigzag through the streets of Old Nice. In between the hot pursuits, there are plenty of convoluted plot twists, and a few slow segments.  Frankenheimer manages to maintain tension, but a bit of trimming would have accelerated the story.  The film's self-serious script (in part penned by David Mamet using the name Richard Weisz) gives us the impression there might be something deeper and more nefarious hidden within the narrative, but 'Ronin' never pretends to be anything it isn't.  At its core, it's a basic, in-the-moment thriller that relies more on action than character to carry the day.

De Niro and Reno play off each other well, forming a deep, unspoken bond.  Bean projects a fiery intensity, and Skarsgård exhibits an icy cool.  McElhone, bless her, never seems intimidated by all the testosterone, and stands up to the guys both mentally and physically.  Unfortunately, it's tough to connect to such cold-blooded, sulky characters, and as a result, 'Ronin' – save for the chase sequences – keeps us at arm's length.

Ronin was originally scheduled for a November 2007 Blu-ray release, but MGM yanked it from the schedule without explanation, then took its sweet time bringing it back.  Optimists hoped the studio was retooling the transfer or preparing some swanky extras, but the film merely languished in the vault and now arrives just as it would have a year-and-a-half ago…on a barebones, single-layer BD-25 with a 1080p/MPEG-2 codec.  Blah.  A few moments provide a fleeting high-def rush, but most of the time the picture is quite flat and lifeless.  Contrast is weak, but black levels achieve a fair amount of density, and a few nicks mar the print.  The film is certainly watchable, but pales significantly when compared to other high-def action discs.  Even the French locations look dull and drab, and that's a real crime.  Hopefully, somewhere down the road MGM will revisit 'Ronin' and give its transfer the attention it deserves, but I wouldn't bet on it.

The DTS-HD Master Audio track benefits from plenty of surround input, which immerses us in the car chases. The rears are quite active when the action ramps up, though bass frequencies lack sufficient potency.  Thick accents and De Niro's patented mumbling make dialogue a bit challenging to comprehend, but overall dynamic range is good and nice front channel separation keeps the sound field active even during quieter moments.  All in all, clean, distinct sound with good presence and depth prevails.  Aside from the original theatrical trailer, as well as a trio of other previews (all in HD), there are no supplements whatsoever on this disc.

Despite a story that doesn't quite pack a knockout punch, the exciting car chases and top-flight performances of Ronin set it apart from other action flicks and make this post-Cold War yarn worth checking out.  The late Frankenheimer left quite a film legacy, and though Ronin will never be regarded as one of his classic efforts, it's still a lean, edgy action film. And when you feel the need for speed, you'd be hard-pressed to find a movie to beat it.

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