Ronin

| August 24, 2017

John Frankenheimer established himself as a director of considerable note early on with films like Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and the classic thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Unfortunately, prominent titles in the later part of his career were met with understandable derision, including the epic disaster The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) and the meandering Christmas caper Reindeer Games (2000)—though watching Reindeer Games has honestly become a beloved annual tradition for me. To some, works like these no doubt sadly discredited Frankenheimer who, even at the end of his life, was capable of producing a masterful, captivating thriller as he did with the Robert De Niro-starring, David Mamet co-written Ronin (1998).

Frankenheimer’s Ronin is a film that, in my estimation, has always stood in the shadow of the more bombastic mid-90’s thriller Heat, which famously brought legends De Niro and Al Pacino together onscreen for the first time. It’s an unfair comparison for people to try to make, but it’s one the marketing team for the film brought on themselves. After all, the artwork devised for Ronin at the time of its release conspicuously aped the blue artwork of Heat, and similarly emphasized the massive machine guns wielded by the characters throughout. When you look at the films themselves, though, Ronin stands out as a more subdued work, one relying on far less dialogue and a more nuanced approach to relationship development. No Al Pacino screaming about butts here to keep you on your toes!

With any luck, Ronin’s August 29, 2017 release on Blu-ray from Arrow Video US will give people cause to reevaluate Ronin on its own terms though. Ronin may be a fairly standard heist-based actioner on the surface, but it proves to be anything but run-of-the-mill when you look at how nuanced its characters and their complex relationships are played by everyone involved. Sure, the story is simple: an unlikely group of associates come together to steal something that inevitably turns the more unscrupulous among them against the rest. What sets Ronin apart from the average heist-based thriller is Frankenheimer’s emphasis on complexly subtextual relationships mixed with some action-packed globe-hopping and believable shootouts and car chases that prefigure the coming millennium’s more realistic actioners. After all, even the previously cartoonish James Bond would turn toward the gritty and real when Daniel Craig took over the role.

At the forefront of Ronin’s story is ex-CIA agent Sam, played by Robert De Niro, the titular wandering samurai. He’s a man without a master, now serving only his strict code of honor. And his code demands, as the caper develops, that he reclaim the McGuffin he’d been hired to steal so it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. Again, it’s simple, but the relationships give the story all its weight, especially as Sam befriends fellow thief Vincent (Jean Reno) and develops feelings for their handler (Natascha McElhone).

Ronin’s a smart, grounded thriller that brings together an insanely talented cast, fleshed out by the likes of Stellan Skarsgård, Jonathan Pryce, and Sean Bean in an extraordinary, if thankless role. The only thing that holds Ronin back from being something I’d call near-perfect is its rotating cast of would-be antagonists. Placing Sam opposite a singular opposition force would have likely minimized some of the third act’s meandering and convolution. But really that’s a minor complaint when weighed against Frankenheimer’s many other successes in Ronin.

Arrow Video’s release of Ronin is well worth picking up, and not just for the excellent film itself presented in a brand new 4k restoration overseen and approved by director of photography Robert Fraisse, but for the staggering wealth of special features it includes as well! The Arrow release boasts many vintage features alongside a brand new interview Robert Fraisse, providing terrific insight into the film from then and now. The archival features on the disc include:

– Audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer

– “You Talkin’ to Me?” a 1994 appreciation of Robert De Niro with 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

 

Arrow’s packaging of Ronin is also quite stunning, especially when the case is housed in its slipsleeve. The release also includes the always appreciated reversible cover art (one side with the newly-produced artwork also on the slipsleeve, and the other side inspired by the film’s original blue cover art), as well as a 36-page booklet containing an essay by Travis Crawford.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: Video and DVD

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