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John Frankenheimer
Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale
Writing Credits:
J.D. Zeik (story & screenplay), David Mamet (as Richard Weisz)

Loyalty is bought, betrayal is a way of life ...

In 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!

Box Office:
$55 million.
Opening Weekend
$12.697 million on 2487 screens.
Domestic Gross
$41.609 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby 2.0
French Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 121 min.
Price: $24.96
Release Date: 5/9/2006

Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Director John Frankenheimer
• Alternate Ending
Disc Two
• Original Venice Film Festival Interviews
• “Through the Lens” Featurette
• “Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane” Documentary
• “Natasha McElhone: An Actor’s Process” Featurette
• “In the Cutting Room with Tony Gibbs” Featurette
• “Composing the Ronin Score” Featurette
• “The Driving of Ronin” Featurette
• Animated Photo Gallery
• Previews


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Ronin: Collector's Edition (1998)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 8, 2006)

If I recall correctly, 1998’s Ronin disappointed me when I saw it theatrically. I thought it looked cool based on the previews, but the final result left me cold – I guess. Frankly, I barely remember the movie, so I’m not completely sure what reaction it inspired in me.

Obviously it didn’t make enough of an impression for me to avoid it eight years down the road. I recall enough of its interesting premise to think I should give it another shot. When this new special edition DVD hit my door, I figured that meant the time was right.

The film starts with a text preface that explains how samurai whose liege lords died on their watch suffered shame and were forced to become rogue warriors. They no longer merited the title of “samurai”. Instead, these mercenaries became known as “ronin”.

So there’s your title! The movie hops to present-day Paris to introduce us to a group of guns for hire brought together on a mission under Deirdre (Natasha McElhone). The gang includes Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth). Deirdre tells them they need to ambush a group of five to eight men to retrieve a briefcase.

And that’s all she tells them to start, as she keeps the contents of the case a secret. The rest of the movie’s action revolves around this mysterious case. Various folks double-cross each other as the different parties try to take control of the case. Sam remains in the forefront as he tries to come out on top.

Now that I’ve seen Ronin a second time, I know why I didn’t remember it: the movie rarely rises above the level of “forgettable”. I don’t mean that to convey that the film is bad or truly problematic. Instead, I simply think it fails to stick to the viewer’s brain. It does just enough right to keep us interested over its two hours, but it doesn’t manage to stimulate us more than that.

With less talent at hand, that could be acceptable. However, given the number of names at work on Ronin, it becomes a shame that the film lacks much pizzazz. Director John Frankenheimer creates a real throwback flick. He makes virtually no concessions to modern cinema, as Ronin feels like something he could have made 30 years earlier. Indeed, it reminded me of gritty classics like The French Connection with its rough, unflinching world.

In no way does this old-fashioned form of movie-making bother me, so I don’t want these remarks to convey that I think Ronin drags due to stylistic choices. Indeed, I think it’s nice that we get a film without any of the modern excesses that mar so many efforts. Ronin goes with a non-nonsense, all-business tone.

While I feel like that should make matters satisfying, Ronin never catches fire. Frankly, there’s a real lack of inspiration behind the cameras. Old-fashioned filmmaking is good, but cliché, tired filmmaking isn’t acceptable. I get the impression that Frankenheimer goes with the tried and true largely because he can’t think of any other way to work.

The case at the center of the movie acts as a classic MacGuffin. That factor means that the story of Ronin becomes more than slightly frustrating. From the very start, the film makes it transparently clear that the case really doesn’t matter other than as at motivator for our principals. It’s unimportant what happens to it or what it contains, and that seems obvious from the beginning. I wish the flick hid this fact better, as that would allow the story to become more interesting.

This doesn’t mean that Ronin doesn’t come without thrills and surprises. We don’t ever quite know who to trust, and events change our allegiances rapidly. Of course, we always stick with De Niro’s Sam, and Reno’s Vincent gives us little reason for concern. The others create more complicated characters that we find it more difficult to trust.

All of that creates a little tension as Ronin runs. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough to sustain the movie. We get a few decent action sequences and a mildly involving thriller but not much depth or spark. This is a wholly ordinary flick.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B/ Bonus B

Ronin appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The film presented a rather mediocre transfer.

Sharpness was inconsistent. Due to some moderate edge enhancement, wide shots tended to look a bit soft. Much of the movie seemed reasonably concise, but too many exceptions occurred. I saw a few examples of jagged edges and shimmering, and I also noticed periodic instances of source defects. The film demonstrated periodic specks, marks and streaks.

The low-key palette of Ronin never went much beyond those restrictions. A few slightly bright hues showed up along the way, but the majority of the movie stayed with gray tones. The colors we saw looked decent but somewhat bland. Blacks were acceptably deep, but shadows tended to appear a little dense. The low-light shots could have offered better clarity. This all ended up with a “C+” image.

Similar ups and downs stemmed from the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Ronin. My main concerns related to the quality of the audio. Speech seemed somewhat flat and lacked a real natural tone. The lines got buried under the mix at times, and that could affect intelligibility.

Effects were usually clean, though they occasionally betrayed a little distortion. They showed loud bass response that slightly overwhelmed the image on occasion. Music lacked much range. The score took on a choppy sound that didn’t present strong dynamics. The upper register was usually fine, but lows lacked presence.

At least the soundfield seemed positive. The music demonstrated good stereo imaging, and the movie took advantage of all its action sequences. All five speakers presented a lot of information, especially during the livelier scenes. Bullets zipped around the room and cars zoomed all over the place. At times I thought things could be a little too “speaker specific”, but the track usually blended well. The combination of good soundscape and lackluster audio quality meant a “B” grade.

On this two-disc release of Ronin, we get a mix of extras. DVD One starts with an audio commentary from director John Frankenheimer. He offers a running, screen-specific discussion. Recorded for the original 1999 DVD, Frankenheimer covers a mix of useful topics.

The director gets into the script and story, the actors’ training and performances, and the alternate endings. He also tells us a lot about filmmaking techniques. He details photographic choices as well as locations and sets.

For the best parts, Frankenheimer digs into the stunts and driving sequences. He gives us a very nice examination of those methods and provides a solid discussion of all the related challenges. Despite a little too much dead air, Frankenheimer ultimately makes this a satisfying commentary.

Disc One also includes an alternate ending. This 107-second clip adds a few shots of Natasha McElhone to the existing conclusion and shows what happens to her. It’s an interesting choice, but I think the more vague finale now in the film works better.

When we shift to DVD Two, we begin with a collection of Original Venice Film Festival Interviews. These fill 20 minutes, 40 seconds, and include comments from actors Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Natasha McElhone. De Niro chats about his impressions of Frankenheimer, his character and other aspects of the story, and stunt driving. Reno chats about his character and the others, working with De Niro, Frankenheimer, the movie’s concept and filming in France. Finally, McElhone looks at her character and related issues, the flick’s theme, working in an action flick and shooting the driving scenes, and her impressions of Frankenheimer.

De Niro has always been a bad interview subject, and he remains uncomfortable here. He tosses out a couple of decent notes but not anything particularly useful. Reno seems more open and adds a few nice observations about the director. McElhone offers information on about the same level as Reno. She gives us a smattering of details but nothing memorable. That’s the main problem with these interviews; they were done for promotional reasons, so they lack much impact.

During Through the Lens, we get notes from director of photography Robert Fraisse. The 17-minute and 56-second featurette looks at Fraisse’s work. We learn about the challenges involved during Ronin as well as cooperating with Frankenheimer, shooting the driving, and various other cinematographic issues. Though “Lens” can be a bit dry, it offers a decent perspective on the movie’s camerawork and proves interesting.

The 17-minute and 44-second Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane features Frankenheimer, De Niro, McElhone, Reno, producer Frank Mancuso Jr., stunt coordinator Joe Dunne, stunt car coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez, and actors Skipp Sudduth, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard and Sean Bean. “Lane” covers Frankenheimer’s work on the set, the movie’s story, characters and actors, the flick’s driving scenes and stunts, filming in Paris, and a few production topics. Too many movie clips show up here and “Lane” takes a very general focus. It comes across as a promotional featurette that touts the movie but doesn’t tell us much.

Next comes Natasha McElhone: An Actor’s Process. This 13-minute and 56-second piece presents statements from McElhone as she chats about working with Frankenheimer and her co-stars, various challenges during the shoot, forms of training, and aspects of her performance. Like the other featurettes, this one never really excels. It tosses out a smattering of nice bits but doesn’t coalesce into something with a lot of value.

For the next featurette, we find the 18-minute and 55-second In the Cutting Room with Tony Gibbs. It presents editor Gibbs as he discusses his background and how he got into film as well as his training and prior experiences. Gibbs then goes over how he came to work with Frankenheimer and specifics of what he did on Ronin. I like the fact we get info about Gibbs’ history before he digs into the specifics. This combination of elements helps make “Cutting” a rich and informative piece.

As we progress, we move to Composing the Ronin Score. This 11-minute and 51-second show features composer Elia Cmiril as he chats about his start in film and his work on Ronin. He discusses specifics of his score and what he wanted to do with the music in this revealing little featurette.

We hear about The Driving of Ronin in a 15-minute and 29-second featurette. It offers notes from stunt car coordinator Lagniez. As one might guess, the program looks at the movie’s stunt driving. Lagniez relates his history with cars and speed and then goes over the details of how he worked on Ronin. Like the two featurettes that immediately precede it, “Driving” becomes useful and worthwhile.

A three-minute and 32-second Animated Photo Gallery appears next. It runs a series of publicity and production pictures accompanied by score from the film. Some decent images appear, though the format doesn’t please me.

Finally, we get a collection of Previews. This area includes ads for “The Ultimate James Bond Collection”, the Raging Bull Collector’s Edition, and the extended cut of Black Hawk Down.

Twice I’ve watched Ronin and twice I’ve wanted and expected to like it. Twice I’ve felt only moderately involved by it. The film includes many solid parts but they never coalesce to form a rich whole. The DVD offers mediocre picture with fairly good audio and a large but inconsistent package of extras. Neither the movie nor the DVD manage to become anything much above average.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.238 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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