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RONIN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgaard, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce
Director: John Frankenheimer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 121 Minutes
Release Date: May 9, 2006

“You ever kill anyone?”

“I hurt somebody’s feelings once.”

Film ***1/2

John Frankenheimer was one of the all-time great directors of the international thriller. Over his legendary career, Frankenheimer made some of the most memorable thrillers of our time, including Seconds, Black Sunday and The Manchurian Candidate. But the mere fact that he was still able to pull off a massive scale production like Ronin at age 68 was really saying something.

With its phenomenal cast and its unbeatable production scale, Ronin is the pure epitome of the thinking man’s thriller. It follows the perfect espionage formula, applying very little of plot but a lot in terms of character, locations and high-octane action. It also makes the best use, in any film, of the McGuffin device, which in this case is a large briefcase.

But before we indulge in the mysteries surrounding the plot, we should explore the meaning of the title. Ronin refers to a class of samurai warriors in feudal Japan. When those they protected had been killed, the warriors suffered great shame, and were no longer allowed to be called samurai. So in short, Ronin is a term that translates to mercenary for hire.

The film begins with a scenario where not everything is what it seems. A man named Sam (Robert De Niro) walks into a bar in a foreign location. There he is greeted by several individuals. When we think something serious is about to go down, it is revealed that what has just happened is an exercise; something which Sam knew all along. “Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of”, he tells one of the other mercenaries.

Following the introduction/exercise, the team is gathered to go over plans relating to their handed assignment, which is the pursuit and retrieval of a large briefcase. Though, as the McGuffin rule ensures, we are never exactly given any hints as to what is in the case, we are made to believe the contents are more than sensitive. The case has reported to have been sold to a gang of Russians for the highest bid. The objective is to prevent the sell of the case from taking place.

Heading up the operation is Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), a tough-as-nails Irishwoman who works for a high level operative named Seamus (Jonathan Pryce). Among the other team members; they include Vincent (Jean Reno), a French mercenary, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard), a computer wiz from Russia, Larry (Skipp Sudduth), a getaway driver from the States, and Spence (Sean Bean), a bomb expert from England.

Basically what follows in the movie is a series of jaw-dropping shootouts and car chases. The foreign locations, such as Nice for example, provide unique settings for such high speed chases, as the team attempts to track down the case. Many twists and turns develop, and by the end of the film, you might be more than surprised when one team member’s secret agenda is revealed.

Ronin is one of the best recent examples of mixing intelligent writing and character development with heart-pounding action and suspense. And though the screenplay was written under the name of Richard Weisz, it should really come as no surprise to anyone that the name is a pseudonym of the one and only David Mamet. It makes absolute sense, because only Mamet could write such intelligent material for an action thriller. See his unjustly overlooked film Spartan for further proof of that.

And when a movie can deliver a monumental car chase, that’s really saying something. Ronin features at least three intense and lengthy chase scenes, each of which will have you on the edge of your seat, meaning you’ll wish you had a seatbelt on hand. The capper of them all is a high speed chase that ventures into a crowded tunnel, resulting in multiple changes into the wrong lane and endless fender benders (just how I like em, hehe!).

Bottom line, the unbeatable cast (each of whom are in prime form), the skillful writing and plotting and the high octane action numbers add up to make Ronin a most worthy entry in the action thriller genre. John Frankenheimer made one more movie after this, the equally thrilling and intense Reindeer Games, before passing on in 2002. There’s no question that Ronin is one of films he should always be remembered for.

Video ****

This re-issue of the movie does have one slight improvement over the original DVD release, which is that only the widescreen version is offered. As a result of not being a flipper disc, MGM’s anamorphic picture is twice as good as the already good-looking first release. The French Riviera has never looked more stunning, as the consistently clear and crisp picture delivers thoroughly in clarity, detail, and color appearance. A grand job all the way!

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix delivers the same blazing effect the original disc delivered, making this still a highly noteworthy DVD audio presentation. Action scenes are indeed the high point, as the gun fire is loud and fierce, while the even the sound of a car in high speed blasts through in super-charged dynamic form. Music playback and dialogue delivery also come out strong in terms of delivery.

Features ****

I’ve long waited for MGM to repackage this movie in a Collector’s Edition release, and the seven year wait was definitely worth it. This 2 Disc Collector’s Edition includes just about everything that was missing from the original release.

Disc One features what was included in the previous release; a commentary track with John Frankenheimer and a very surprising alternate ending, which I’m very glad didn’t make it into the final cut.

Disc Two includes even more goodies, starting off with six featurettes; “Through The Lens” with Director of Photography Robert Fraisse, “Ronin: Filming In The Fast Lane” Making-Of Documentary, “Natascha McElhone: An Actor's Process”, “In The Cutting Room With Tony Gibbs”, “Composing The Ronin Score” and “The Driving Of Ronin”. Also featured are the Original Venice Film Festival Interviews with Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone and an Animated Photo Gallery.

Summary:

Forget The Fast and the Furious! Ronin is the way to do a real action movie involving multiple car chases. It’s one of John Frankenheimer’s finest cinematic accomplishments, and with this new Collector’s Edition, the film deserves to be rediscovered.

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