September 9, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: RONIN

Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale, Jonathan Pryce, Jan Triska, Katarina Witt. Directed by John Frankenheimer. (1998, 122 min).

Ronin was the best action film of the 90s, and as the genre becomes increasingly dependent on shaky-cam, hyper-active editing and - ugh! - CGI, I appreciate it more with each passing year. To coin an oft-used cliche, they don't make 'em like this anymore.

Actually, they didn't really make 'em like this in the 90s, either. Ronin was an anomaly, a throwback to the aesthetics of the 1970s, when elaborate chases were artistically choreographed and performed for a director who knew that what makes a chase thrilling has nothing to do with quick editing and massive destruction. It's convincing the viewer that the chase is real, we're in the middle of it and his actors are actually behind the wheel. The high-tech freeway chase in The Matrix Reloaded may be a visual wonder, but can anyone honestly say it's more harrowing and suspenseful than Gene Hackman trailing an L-train in The French Connection?

During his heyday, few directors were as skilled at capturing the thrill of the chase as John Frankenheimer. In many ways, Ronin was a glorious return-to-form for a director who had wallowed in mediocrity for a couple of decades. While his keen eye renders the action scenes as thrilling as anything else he's done in his long career, what also makes Ronin memorable is its intriguingly mysterious characters and narrative purity.

Road rage...some guys have it all figured out.
Sure, there are major characters who hatch intricate and complicated plans to steal a case before it's sold to nefarious buyers. There are also surprising double-crosses as these characters regularly screw each other over. Yet the case is just a MacGuffin. We never learn what's inside, nor the intentions of any of the buyers. Not only that, it's never made quite clear if our mercenary protagonists are working for people who are any better than those they're stealing the case from. In fact, aside from some vague conversations that are never elaborated upon, we don't know much about the main characters, either. We learn just enough to like, hate or - in one case - pity each and every one of them.

But to mistake the overall lack of exposition for ambiguity is missing the point. Ronin simply jettisons every element that isn't absolutely necessary. By stripping the story down to its bare essentials, all we concern ourselves with is who's chasing who, who's got the case and who we should be rooting for. Action cinema doesn't get much more pure than that.

"No, Robert, you can't play with them."
In modern terms, Ronin can sort-of be seen as the cinematic equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, without the hookers. There are missions you must complete before reaching your ultimate goal, by any means necessary, regardless of the collateral damage. All you really need to worry about are the folks you’re chasing (or running from). But unlike my frustration with my dubious video-gaming skills, these folks never say "Aw, fuck it" and start wiping-out everybody within eyeshot.

"Siri...where the hell are we?"
There are vivid gunfights and two extended (very destructive) car chases. Frankenheimer, who helmed some of the best racing footage ever in Grand Prix, hadn’t lost a single step. The thrilling seven minute chase through the streets of Paris rivals the likes of The French Connection and doesn't rely much on special effects. We don't get many classic car chases like these anymore, where we're totally convinced it's really Robert De Niro chasing down Natascha McElhone down the wrong way of a busy expressway.

On a side note, another thing which makes Ronin interesting is Frankenheimer's decision to show the consequences of the mayhem caused by these characters. Innocent people get caught crossfire during gunfights or barbecued in their vehicles because they chose the wrong road on which to commute that day. However, Frankenheimer is careful not to show the film’s “heroes” directly causing any of these deaths. It’s also clearly apparent that if you want to go on a killing spree, do it in France. Despite all the carnage inflicted in public streets, there’s almost never a cop to be found, kind-of like Grand Theft Auto when you activate a cheat code which erases your wanted level.

"This is how many f**ks I give."
Still, it's almost criminal that hyperactive junk like Bad Boys defines 90's-era action for so many viewers, while Ronin remains relatively underappreciated. I would think the virtuosity displayed in the chase scenes alone would have people ranking it right up there with Bullitt, The French Connection and Mad Max. The movie definitely has a similar 70's vibe - an era when action didn't always go hand-in-hand with spectacle. Had it been made back then, perhaps it would be hailed today as one of the great action classics.

This Blu-Ray from Arrow Films throws in a few new-to-Blu-Ray extras in addition to the supplemental material that was included on the original DVD release. However, the terrific 4K restoration is what makes this disc preferable to previous Blu-Ray editions.

"YOU TALKIN' TO ME?" - Quentin Tarantino discusses Robert De Niro, with an emphasis on the actor's 70s work (made in 1994).
ARCHIVAL FEATURES (all of which are from the original DVD release): "Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane"; "Through the Lens" (with cinematographer Robert Fraisse"; "The Driving of Ronin"; "Natascha McElhone: An Actor's Process"; "Composing the Ronin Score"; "In the Cutting Room" (with editor Tony Gibbs); "Venice Film Festival Interviews"
AUDIO COMMENTARY - by John Frankenheimer
ALTERNATE ENDING (which is a bit bleaker)
COLLECTOR'S BOOKLET (not available for review)


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