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Ronin Blu-ray Review

7 min read

The sort of thriller they don’t quite make anymore. While it’s themes may be about being out of place, this sort of movie is anything but dated.

What They Say:
From director John Frankenheimer (52 Pickup, The Manchurian Candidate) comes Ronin, a pulse-pounding, action-packed crime thriller featuring an all-star cast headlined by Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver, Heat) and Jean Reno (Léon: The Professional).

On a rain-swept night in Paris, an international crack team of professional thieves assembles, summoned by a shady crime syndicate fronted by the enigmatic Deirdre (Natascha McElhone, The Devil’s Own). Their mission: to steal a heavily guarded briefcase from armed mobsters, its contents undisclosed. But what begins as a routine heist soon spirals into chaos, with the group beset by a series of double-crosses and constantly shifting allegiances, and it falls to world-weary former CIA strategist Sam (De Niro) and laconic Frenchman Vincent (Reno) to hold the mission together.

A latter-day return to form for Frankenheimer, the film evokes the same gritty milieu as classic 70s crime fare like The French Connection, in addition to anticipating the early 21st century trend towards more grounded, realistic action movies, exemplified by the likes of the Bourne franchise. Arrow Video is proud to present Ronin in a brand new, cinematographer-approved 4K restoration, allowing this jewel in the crown of 90s thriller cinema to shine like never before.

The Review
Audio:
The audio is presented in lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 PCM. The movie was watched in 2.0 and sounds just as good as the previous release.

Video:
A new 4K restoration from the original camera negative was made for this release. It’s a noticeable improvement over the previous Blu-Ray release and looks pretty great.

Menu:
Everything is neatly organized, and all of the extras are nicely defined when selected. The movie’s main theme loops over snippets from the movie showcasing most of the major characters. It’s very functional, if lacking a little bit of the thematic flair of some of Arrow’s other releases.

Packaging:
The case is housed in an o-card with new art commissioned for this release. The art is a stylish composite of character shots from the movie, and while it may be lacking some of the style of many of Arrow’s releases with illustrations, it’s a marked improvement over previous posters and covers for Ronin.

Extras:
Audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer
Brand new video interview with director of photography Robert Fraisse
You Talkin’ to Me?, a 1994 appreciation of Ronin star Robert De Niro by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino
Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane, an archival behind-the-scenes featurette
Through the Lens, an archival interview with Robert Fraisse
The Driving of Ronin, an archival featurette on the film’s legendary car stunts
Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Process, an archival interview with the actress
Composing the Ronin Score, an archival interview with composer Elia Cmiral
In the Ronin Cutting Room, an archival interview with editor Tony Gibbs
Venice Film Festival interviews with Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone
Alternate ending
Theatrical trailer
Image gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Oink Creative

Content:
In hindsight, Ronin feels like the last gasp of a certain type of movie. It’s not that this sort of espionage-laden, political action thriller disappeared, but between the shifting political landscape of the early 00s and the continued rise of franchises and other “event” movies, this sort of relative low key, decidedly “adult” story became the stomping ground of prestige television rather than the sort of thing you see in cineplexes. That it was released within a month of Blade– the real “father” of the modern superhero movie– seems fitting, since that sort of movie drove movies like Ronin back into the shadows.

This also makes Ronin’s narrative all too appropriate, as its characters are just as adrift and masterless as the movie within they reside.

A team of specialists is assembled by Natascha McElhone’s character, Dierdre, to acquire a case from unnamed criminals. What’s in the box is never addressed. It’s never given a name, nor is its purpose mentioned other than the fact that several competing criminal elements desire whatever happens to be in said case. This team consists of the sorts of men without a place in this post-Cold War/pre-War on Terrorism world– former CIA and KGB agents, hired guns, and other experts in the sort of spycraft and violence rendered antiquated by the shifting political landscape.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition on the original half-myth of the 47 Ronin. They were samurai living in the Tokugawa era, where men of their caste lived by an antiquated warrior code of honor while living in a society where such warriors were more likely to take up roles as administrators than actively waging war for their daimyo. These “ronin” of the Cold War may not have the same sort of loyalties to a master as the 47 Ronin, but they’re still men forced out of their place in society, looking for something that makes sense to them in this new world.

It doesn’t take the form of avenging a former master– it feels more like they’re avenging a dead philosophy, where sides in the war were clear, even if the stakes weren’t. With this new mission, De Niro’s Sam and his comrades are unsure of their employer and why this person needs the mystery object in question. The only reason why they’re working for what turns out to be extremists within the IRA is that they’re the ones fronting the bill. There’s no allegiance to country or comrades– no real sense of “honor” beyond what the individual brings to the table– and given Sam’s reveal that he never really left the CIA, it’s that feeling of “this is for my people” that’s being avenged. It also makes his friendship with Reno’s Vincent make all the more sense, since only someone who still values that sort of camaraderie would befriend someone in such a mercenary environment. Much like the code of the samurai from the days of the 47 Ronin, that sense of honor may have never really been completely real, but the idea’s real to men like Sam and Vincent, and that’s what matters.

While those old philosophies may have never really existed, the sort of practical stunt work and precise cinematography and editing that went into the movie’s nigh-perfect car chase scenes are also relics that were soon to be forgotten as times changed filmmaking-wise.

The three extended chase sequences, along with a few scattered shootouts and the like, are both wonders of the almost lost art of practical stunts and the use of action as character development. Several professional race car drivers were used to drive the cars, often utilizing passenger side steering wheels so that the actual actors could be sitting behind the driver side wheel as the stunts were performed. Because of this, the reactions on the actor’s faces are reacting to real time driving, rather than manufactured reaction shots edited in later on via green screen. This especially shines in the big car chase between Deirdre and Sam, as they drive head-on into oncoming traffic on the streets of Paris. The way each character reacts to the situation, with Deirdre acting far more recklessly and Sam doing his best to protect innocent drivers caught in their wake, says almost everything you need to know about their characters, and knowing that their respective actors were sitting right there as each stunt took place sells those character reactions. Even the first, comparatively low key action scene turns into a major character beat, as Sean Bean’s Spence is exposed as a fraud who possibly doesn’t have the combat experience with which he boasts. It reminds a lot of another samurai story, Seven Samurai, and Toshiro Mifune’s peasant posing as a samurai seeking to be elevated beyond his lot in life through bravery, with the exception that Spence has all of the bravado and none of the aptitude. That may be the main point in which Ronin diverges from that samurai attitude, as posturing and “heart” have no value.

We’ve seen similar things since Ronin’s release in 1998. The Bourne series has some spiritual links to this sort of movie, but that Paul Greengrass style handheld camerawork that puts the audience into the scene is a decidedly different sort of beast and creates a different sort of experience. The Fast and the Furious series may boast some amazing vehicle-based mayhem, but its dramatics and over the top stunts are mostly computer enhanced, lending it more of a super hero vibe than anything. The likes of John Wick and some direct to DVD fare venture into the practical stunt realm, but they often feel more like something out of Hong Kong than the sort of American/European style of Ronin. If anything, Tom Cruise’s more recent output, like Jack Reacher and the later Mission Impossible sequels, come the closest to this sort of old school action thriller. So this sort of movie hasn’t quite gone away, but then again, neither has the Cold War.

In Summary:

They don’t quite make them like this anymore, and that’s a bit of a shame. Ronin’s a near perfect example of a sort of action movie that’s out of the past, but not as antiquated as its absence would have us believe.

Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B+
Extras Grade: B

Released By: Arrow Video
Release Date: 29 August 2017
MSRP: $27.99
Running Time: 122 minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Review Equipment:
Toshiba 55L711U18 55” 4K UHD TV, Playstation 4


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