n a world where loyalties are easily abandoned and allegiances can be bought, a new and deadlier terrorist threat has emerged - free agent killers! The Cold War may be over, but a new world order keeps a group of covert mercenaries employed by the highest bidder. These operatives, known as "Ronin," are assembled in France by a mysterious client for a seemingly routine mission: steal a top-secret briefcase. But the simple task soon proves explosive as other underworld organizations vie for the same prize…and to get the job done, the members of Ronin must do something they've never done before - trust each other!
Get the case.
In a nutshell, that's the plot of 'Ronin,' John Frankenheimer's gritty action-espionage flick that follows a motley group of mercenaries on their quest to retrieve a coveted metal attaché. What's inside is anybody's guess, but whatever it is, everybody wants it – and, if necessary, will kill to get it. The game of cat and mouse begins in an abandoned Parisian warehouse, where a sleek, tough Irish chick named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a team of rogue "professionals" to do her bidding. The job is dangerous and success isn't guaranteed, yet the potential payoff is big enough to lure these sullen operatives into Deirdre's web. Like disgraced Japanese Samurai centuries ago, Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean), and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) have been cut loose from various covert organizations and now work freelance, but their lack of national loyalty makes them difficult to trust, and once the hunt begins, so do the double-crosses. From the City of Light to the French Riviera and sun-baked ruins of Provence, the hired guns track the elusive prize, leaving in their wake a sizeable body count and plenty of burned rubber.
Like 'Bullitt' and 'The French Connection,' car chases play a big role in 'Ronin,' and Frankenheimer puts us in the driver's seat for some of the most thrilling smash-and-dash sequences ever filmed. Who knows if the movie intends to conjure up memories of two dead princesses, but the ghosts of Grace of Monaco and Diana of England certainly haunt us as we watch De Niro and company recklessly navigate the treacherous landscape of the Riviera's Upper Corniche and Paris' sleek, traffic-filled tunnels. (I've driven both myself and can vouch for their white-knuckle characteristics, even at normal speeds.) 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.
And how. What makes these lengthy chases so exciting is the realism Frankenheimer brings to them. More so than in similar films, we feel the speed, experience the split-second reactions, and absorb the drivers' intensity as they zigzag through Nice's narrow streets and careen down Parisian sidewalks. There's plenty of collateral damage, too; an open-air market is destroyed, pedestrians are injured, other cars are rammed and flipped. Frankenheimer holds no one and nothing hostage, and the non-stop mayhem rivets our attention.
'Ronin,' though, isn't all mindless action. In between the frenetic pursuits, the characters glower and brood over their dire situation as we try to follow the convoluted plot's twists and turns. Right off the bat, the film plops us into the thick of the story, and, like the characters, we try to get the lay of the land through the vague details Deirdre stingily doles out. It takes a while for the movie to rev its engine, and at times it sputters and stalls, but Frankenheimer still maintains tension throughout. Some judicious cutting would make the film more aerodynamic, but the slower sections allow us necessary time to reflect and process. Though the film's self-important script (co-written by David Mamet under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) always gives the impression there's something deeper and darker and more nefarious hidden within the narrative – as well as some sober, revelatory message at the denouement – 'Ronin' is really a very basic, in-the-moment thriller. We learn little about any of the principals, and as the film comes to a close, anyone who's still alive quickly scatters into the wind leaving nary a clue as to what lies ahead.
Still, the cast crafts excellent portrayals. High-voltage films so often feature overheated performances, as actors try to compete with and outdo the special effects. Not so in 'Ronin.' Everyone underplays, and the nuanced portraits enhance the story. De Niro and the always fascinating Reno are terrific; they play off each other well, even as they keep their cards close to their vests. In a small role, Bean projects a fiery intensity, while Skarsgård exhibits an icy cool, and McElhone, who reminds me of Kate Winslet one minute and Jane Seymour the next, never seems intimidated by all the testosterone. On the downside, the characters' inherent cold nature inhibits emotional connections, and as a result, 'Ronin' – save for the chase sequences – keeps us at arm's length and lacks any lasting impact.
The late Frankenheimer left quite a film legacy, and though 'Ronin' isn't regarded as one of his classic efforts, it's nevertheless 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.
It sure has taken a while to get 'Ronin' onto Blu-ray. Originally scheduled for a November 2007 release, then unceremoniously yanked, the film languished in home video purgatory for more than a year before its long-delayed high-def debut. Unfortunately, no one at MGM thought about retooling the disc while it sat on the shelf, so 'Ronin' arrives just as it would have oh-so-many moons ago…on a barebones, single-layer BD-25 with a 1080p/MPEG-2 codec that does little to spruce up the image. There are brief moments – usually during close-ups – when one can nab a fleeting high-def rush, but most of the time the picture is quite flat and lifeless, and looks almost as if a thin film of haze covered the lens when Frankenheimer was shooting. An overall brightness diffuses contrast somewhat, but blacks remain relatively dense and inky. Though it's tough to make Paris and the French Riviera look drab, Frankenheimer succeeds by employing such a muted color palette -- the image, at times, looks almost monochromatic.
The print sports a few nicks here and there, and digital noise often interferes with the movie's grain structure. Exteriors look especially dull, and I also noticed some significant detail loss on quick pans. I wish I had a standard-def copy of 'Ronin' lying around for comparison, because much of the time I felt like I was watching an upconverted DVD instead of a bona fide Blu-ray. In its present state, the film is certainly watchable, but it can't compete with other high-def action discs. Hopefully, MGM will choose to revisit 'Ronin' somewhere down the road and give it the care it deserves, but I won't hold my breath.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track fares better, with plenty of surround input immersing us in the various car chases. The rears get quite a workout during action sequences, though bass frequencies aren't as potent as I would have liked. Explosions lack appropriate oomph, but gunfire is crisp, and the engine revs and brake squeals pass muster in the dynamic range department. All in all, clean, distinct sound with good presence and depth prevails.
Dialogue can be a little tricky to understand, but that may be due more to De Niro's mumbling and the thick accents of Reno and McElhone than any audio deficiency. Nice front channel separation keeps the sound field active even when the rears are quiet, and Elia Cmiral's score blends into the audioscape well. It's too bad the same attention that went into producing this solid audio track couldn't have been lavished on the video, too.
Aside from the original theatrical trailer for 'Ronin,' as well as a trio of other previews (all in HD), there are no supplements whatsoever on this disc.
Gentlemen, start your engines. Despite a story that fails to pack the punch we expect, the high-octane car chases and first-rate performances of 'Ronin' set it apart from others in its class and make this post-Cold War action film worth a look. Unfortunately, a subpar video transfer and total lack of supplements drag down its score, and relegate it to rental status. On the plus side, there's a potent DTS-HD track, but that alone can't make up for MGM's sloppy Blu-ray presentation of this fan favorite.