RONIN: Blu-ray (United Artists, 1998) Arrow Films
With director John Frankenheimer paying homage to the racing sequences from his own 1966 classic, Grand Prix, and a killer and very accomplished cast, including Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Jonathan Price and Michael Lonsdale, more ought to have been expected from Ronin (1998), a unintentionally silly and thoroughly convoluted spy/action/thriller. The picture’s globe-trotting span takes us to and through some breathtaking Euro landscapes, mostly at a breakneck pace; the screenplay, co-authored by David Mamet (toiling under the nom de plume, Richard Weisz) and John David Zeik, based on Zeik’s short story outline. The title of the picture is rather curious, given Ronin are a sect of ‘master-less’ samurai ostracized for having failed their deceased handlers, basically left to roam the earth as mercenaries for hire. The motley crew inhabiting this movie are hardly that; rather, a troop of reprobates, loners and wanna-be’s desperate for their next ‘big score’. The plot, such as it is, is set into motion by the mysterious, Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), fronting as a barmaid at a local pub in Montmartre and corralling her assassin’s squad from an eclectic roster of international desperadoes; the cool-as-a-cucumber American, Sam (Robert DeNiro) who uses logic and a pistol in tandem to get himself out of some very sticky situations, his ever-faithful, if steely-eyed French wingman, Vincent (Jean Reno), shifty-eyed German computer code cracker, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård) and a pair of nerve-twitchy amateurs; the Englishman, Spence (Sean Bean) – more talk than action – and another American, Larry (Skipp Sudduth); nervous to a fault, who winds up garroted in his car.
Frankly, I remain at a loss to explain the reputation Ronin has acquired since its theatrical release; the storyline, a mess; the characterizations, about as cookie-cutter and wafer thin as clichés get, relying almost exclusively on the reputations of its acting ensemble, put to far better use elsewhere in their respective careers. The Weisz/Zeik script does not keep us guessing because it never entirely resolves or even settles on a side and a purpose. The bad guys with whom we are expected to align our empathies are outclassed by some other bad guys who may or may not actually be working for a third set of never seen – but oddly eluded to - ‘bad guys.’ Yeah, okay. And then what? And for what? Ah, I see: a metal attaché vaguely reminiscent of those steel briefcases Howie Mandel used to implore leggy and short-skirted models to reveal on the TV game show, Deal or No Deal. Alas, we are never privy to the contents of this particular case that Sam and his cohorts are asked by Deirdre to retrieve. So we are left with a MacGuffin as the centerpiece of Ronin. Now, before I become inundated with hate mail attesting to the fact Hitchcock made his career out of MacGuffin-styled plots, the rebuttal I offer herein is simply this: ‘yes’ Hitch used the MacGuffin to launch into his stories. But he also afforded his audience other narrative advantages along the way to enrich and ultimately steered his plots to a more rewarding dénouement. The MacGuffin was never the point of Hitchcock’s storytelling, whereas it is the whole reason for Ronin’s existence. Without the mysterious ‘case’ Frankenheimer does not have a movie!
When all else fails, Frankenheimer certainly knows his way around a great chase sequence – especially one involving cars; the racing in Ronin attaining a level of unimpeachable craftsmanship. While one can emphatically admire Frankenheimer for these exhilarating moments; good stunts alone do not a great movie make, and Ronin – almost from the moment it begins – narratively begins to crumble into exactly the sort of big screen mishmash one would associate with a novice director at the helm. From someone as seasoned as Frankenheimer, it is extremely second rate and marginally embarrassing to say the least. Ronin ought to have been about more than a risk-taking race against time for a prize nobody has seen and, apart from Deirdre and the Russians, is only superficially interested in obtaining. Again, the imagery (sumptuously photographed by Robert Fraisse) clings together because the actors are good enough to compel us to watch them go through the machinations of this oft violent cloak and dagger. The set pieces are all showstoppers; the aforementioned car chases, the superbly staged – if utterly pointless – double assassination of Olympic figure skater, Natacha Kirilova (Katarina Witt) and her Russian mobster/manager, Mikhi (Féodor Atkine), the frantic foot chase as Sam hunts down the double-crossing Gregor through the winding back stages of the Arles Amphitheatre, culminating with a near-fatal plummet from one of its stone buttresses. Heartily, we take absolutely nothing away from these heart-palpitating highlights. They are magnificent. But to what purpose?
Although the original screenplay for Ronin is co-credited to J.D. Zeik, depending on who you ask, David Mamet’s contributions were either as slight as adding a few choice lines of dialogue to ‘expand’ DeNiro’s part or basically a complete re-write of Zeik’s brain child. When asked about Mamet’s contributions, Frankenheimer was rather adamant the credits ought to have read “Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet…we didn’t shoot a line of Zeik’s script!” Frankenheimer was also very precise about the look of the picture. According to his cinematographer, Robert Fraisse, Ronin was comprised of “a lot of setups” and very short shots achieved with extremely short focal lengths to create the illusion of immediacy – the plot seemingly evolving as the picture went along. Steadicam operator, David Crone was calling in to helm these ambitious and physically challenging action sequences, maintaining an incredible sense of framing to add continuity as well as visual finesse. Frankenheimer was also certain he wanted to mute his palette, using color sparingly throughout. This effect was achieved by first overexposing the film stock while shooting, then under developing the footage in the laboratory; simultaneously reducing contrast while desaturating colors.
Herein, we pause briefly to doff our caps to the more than 300 stunt drivers who, driving at top speeds of 120 mph, have achieved extraordinary results for the car chases featured in Ronin; particularly during the penultimate and lengthy showdown through the twisting streets, byways and tunnels of Paris. Frankenheimer’s passion for automobiles is clearly the ‘driving’ spirit behind these death-defying/tire-burning, if hardly trail-blazing action sequences, intentionally to claim 80 wrecks by the end of filming. In an age where it would have been so easy for Frankenheimer to cop out, employing digital tools to tweak, add or even manipulate his edits, he has instead elected to go full-on ‘old school’ with his stunt work. The crashes are real. The hairpin turns are cringe-worthy and nail-biting. As with Grand Prix more than 30 years before it, Ronin achieves a level of big-scale authenticity unlikely to be rivaled by another movie any time soon – if ever; Frankenheimer’s one forgivable cheat, re-dubbing the torque-induced screeches and nitrous oxide power-boosting sound effects in the editing room.
Ronin begins at a bistro in Montmartre where fair-haired Fenian, Deirdre connects with ex-special operatives cum mercenaries, Sam, Larry and Vincent. Hurrying them into a nearby warehouse where fellow soldiers of fortune, Gregor and Spence are already lying in wait, Deirdre wastes no time debriefing her boys on their rather cryptic ‘no questions asked’ mission. They have been seconded to the cause of a military-styled ambush of a heavily armed convoy toting a large metallic briefcase. Sam is immediately suspicious, and, for good reason. Deirdre trickles out details about the plan only when backed into a corner, and never quite enough to thoroughly satisfy Sam’s inquisitive nature. Stonewalled in his complete disclosure, Sam demands more remuneration for sticking his neck out on a fool’s errand, as only a fool would accept such a plan without first knowing all its particulars and pressure points. Although Deirdre reveals more details about the assignment, the contents of the metal attaché are never disclosed.
As this renegade troop prepares for battle, Deirdre’s handler Seamus O'Rourke (Jonathan Pryce) reveals a plot by the Russian mob to bid for the case. Time is of the essence. They must intercept the trade now. During a blood-bursting shoot out, Spence cannot handle the pressure and throws up. Sam challenges; then, exposes Spence as a fraud. Deirdre buys Spence’s silence and the others immediately depart for Nice. The romantic chemistry between Sam and Deirdre is antagonistic but palpable. In a different time and a different place… The remaining team ambushes the convoy and retrieves the case, pursuing the survivors. Alas, in due course treason reveals itself from within as Gregor greedily steals the case and virtually disappears. Now, Gregor tries to sell his ill-gotten gains to the Russians, forced to kill his contact when he betrays him. He then contacts Mikhi, the Russian puppet master pulling all the strings in their game of espionage thus far. Through an old CIA informant, Sam and Vincent intercept the trade between Mikhi’s men and Gregor at the Arles Amphitheatre. Gregor manages an escape, but is taken hostage by Seamus, who has already slit Larry’s throat and kidnapped Deirdre. Sam is wounded by a bullet meant for Vincent. Vincent hurries his ailing partner to a remote villa in Les Baux-de-Provence owned by his good friend, Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale). The projectile is removed sans anesthesia in a cringe-worthy scene not for the faint of heart. Vincent remains vigilante while Sam recuperates. In the meantime, he also asks Jean-Pierre to help them track down Gregor.
In Paris, Gregor is brutally interrogated by the Russians, leading Seamus and Deirdre to his hiding place for the case: a post office box. Unaware Sam and Vincent have also managed to locate their whereabouts; a high-speed chase ensues, ended when Vincent manages to shoot out Deirdre’s tires, sending her car over a precariously high overpass under construction. As workers rush to free Deirdre and Seamus from the overturned burning wreck, Gregor manages yet again to escape with the goods on foot. Sam and Vincent finagle their way into the backstage area of Le Zénith Arena where Olympic figure skater, Natacha Kirilova is preparing for a show. Accompanied by Mikhi, Natacha, who may or may not be aware of her manager/boyfriend’s involvement in these crimes, is as oblivious; she is being shadowed by a sniper hiding in the rafters. Now, Gregor attempts to blackmail Mikhi for a new price on the case or else the sniper will kill his girlfriend. Alas, Gregor has underestimated the ruthlessness of this Russian. He allows Gregor’s shooter his assassination before cold-bloodedly murdering Gregor backstage, retrieving the case from his cold dead hands.
As the panicked crowd flees the arena, Sam and Vincent are once again too late to the party; witnessing Seamus kill Mikhi and retrieve the case. Sam spies Deirdre waiting in a nearby getaway car, beseeching her to leave. He reveals to her he is a covert CIA agent, having always been assigned by his government to pursue Seamus - not the case. Deirdre bitter-sweetly agrees and drives off, forcing Seamus to hurry back into the arena with Sam in pursuit. Seamus ambushes Sam. At the last possible moment however, Seamus is fatally shot by Vincent; their mission, at an end. Some days later, at the same bistro where it all began, Sam and Vincent listen to a radio broadcast announcing a peace accord between Sinn Féin and Britain. Sam looks wistfully toward the front door; Vincent, coolly reminding him Deirdre will not be coming back. Sam agrees. He drives off with another CIA contact, leaving Vincent to pay their bar tab. In John Frankenheimer’s original ending, these introspective moments are interpolated with shots of Deirdre lurking just beyond, tearfully observing Sam and Vincent through the window and quite unaware she has also been shadowed. Members of the Russian mob appear and brutally kidnap her into the back of a waiting van, suggesting hers will decidedly not be a happy end.
Despite Frankenheimer flair with the hot pursuit sequences, and, his considerable stealth in staging interesting, if oddly prolonged dialogue exchanges, Ronin is an uneven thriller at best. It has Frankenheimer’s stamp of quality, though regrettably not enough narrative impetus to ever go beyond a middling and, at times, thoroughly convoluted caper. There are ‘good moments’ within it, but the sum total is never as impressive as its parts. That is a shame because Frankenheimer would not come any closer to rekindling the magic of his own illustrious past with the few and far between offerings made after Ronin. His real glory period remains the 1960’s (The Young Savages 1961, 1962’s Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate, 1964’s Seven Days in May and The Train, and finally, 1966’s Seconds, and, Grand Prix). Ronin shares in glimmers from this golden epoch; notably Frankenheimer’s love of racing and his expertly staged ‘conversational’ exchanges – particularly in an era when dialogue is either cheaply conceived or never even considered beyond an afterthought. Truthfully, it is the dialogue that lets Frankenheimer down here; also, David Mamet’s inability to make good sense (or even basic logic) from J.D. Zeik’s story. Yes, you can have a great movie that does not make any sense at all. Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (1946) immediately comes to mind. Hell, David Lynch’s entire career is based on such hypnotic and nonsensical/dreamlike cinema landscapes. But Ronin is a story ‘of the moment’, presumably taking place in the moment (a.k.a. ‘real time’ and in reality) as fudged through the confines of a conventional movie narrative. Conventional…even unconventional, might have served Frankenheimer well. Pedestrian does not and Ronin succumbs to a sort of taut ennui as its body count rises and the plot slips away like the pieces of a mismatched puzzle never to be put back together successfully.
It’s about time Arrow Video began releasing more ‘region free’ Blu-rays. Their commitment to movies has made them a premiere label to rival – and in some cases – surpass the niche market of personalized and ‘extra-packed’ home video releases, until very late, dominated by the Criterion Collection in North America. Ronin was exclusively restored by Arrow from an original 35mm camera negative scanned in at 4K resolution. Were that every movie could be the benefactor of Arrow’s zeal, expertise and passion, because Ronin looks spectacular in 1080p; head and shoulders beyond the tired MGM/Fox release from 2009. I never saw Ronin theatrically, so the drab color palette that begins the movie seems, if unremarkable, presumably in keeping with Frankenheimer’s original vision. The muted palette perks up after around the 20 min. mark as we move outdoors and begin our globe-trotting adventures. The sequences shot in Nice are among ‘the nicest’; flesh tones looking spectacularly genuine and the rich orange of clay roof tiles sparkling. The most impressive advancement between Arrow and the old MGM/Fox is in fine detail and razor-sharpness. Detail! Detail! Details! They are everywhere; from hair and clothing fibers to cracked stucco and cobblestone. Film grain, previously intermittent and clumpy, is now very indigenous to its source. The DTS 5.1 audio exhibits no discernable improvements from the MGM/Fox release.
Apart from the 4K remaster, Arrow has padded out the extras: porting over Frankenheimer’s audio commentary from the MGM/Fox release and adding to it, a new video interview with cinematographer, Robert Fraisse; also, a documentary on Robert DeNiro by Paul Joyce, and several archival interviews with Fraisse, Frankenheimer, Natascha McElhone, editor Tony Gibbs and Ronin’s composer, Elia Cmiral; plus, Venice Film Festival Q&A’s with DeNiro, Jean Reno and Elhone, the movie’s original ending, a theatrical trailer and – in the first pressing only – a collectible booklet with an essay by critic, Travis Crawford and illustrations by Chris Malbon. Bottom line: if you are a fan of Ronin, the Arrow Film Blu-ray is the only way to go. I would love to see Arrow make a more aggressive push into North American Blu-ray releases with some truly classic Hollywood product. Their quality ranks among the best in the biz and their comprehensive assortment of bonus features are sure to delight self-respecting film lovers and the novice alike. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)