J.D. Lafrance
Ronin: Collector’s Edition DVD Review

Ronin: Collector’s Edition

May 12, 2006

Director: John Frankenheimer,
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale, Jan Triska,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

Most big budget spy movies are often cartoonish action films with an emphasis on spectacle (explosions, gunfights and car chases) and very little intelligence or interesting characters. Aside from the smart, visceral Jason Bourne films, the only mainstream movie to credibly mix brains and brawn in the last ten years was Ronin (1998). This is due in large part to the efficient direction of veteran filmmaker John Frankenheimer, a lean, no-nonsense screenplay ghost-written by David Mamet and a solid cast featuring the likes of Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, and Sean Bean.

The set-up is this: a group of mercenaries from all over the world assemble in France and are given a mission to steal a briefcase with unknown but what they believe to be very valuable contents inside. The group consists of an American driving expert (Sudduth); a British weapons man (Bean); a German computer expert (Skarsgard); a French equipment man (Reno); and a veteran tactician from America (De Niro). They are in turn briefed by a mysterious Irish woman (McElhone) who we later learn gets her information from an Irishman (Pryce).

Because they are all doing this for money no one trusts each other and there is palpable tension under a façade of bravado, dry humour (exemplified by great one-liners, like when the guns expert asks the tactician, “You ever kill anybody?” to which he responds dismissively, “I hurt somebody’s feelings once.”) and professional respect. The group get the case but one of their own betrays them and takes off with it. This kick starts a thrilling cat and mouse game through the streets of Paris.

The fight scenes are, for the most part, realistically depicted. Nobody wastes hundreds of rounds before reloading, the actual battles don’t last long and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire are killed. The film was justly praised for its very exciting car chase sequences. No laws of physics are grossly violated in the car chase in and around the narrow streets of Nice or through the streets of Paris. These sequences work so well not just because they are exciting, well shot and edited, but because they are just as important to the narrative of the film as everything else. They have a purpose as opposed to many other action films where they are used as filler to distract the audience from the lack of story, character and so on.

Ronin is refreshingly free of simple good guy/bad guy roles. They don’t exist in this world because all of the characters have are imbued with both of these qualities. For them, this job is strictly business and when it becomes personal that is when mistakes are made. Robert De Niro turns in his last truly great performance to date as the experienced soldier-of-fortune. Like his character in Heat (1995), he’s all business and dedicated to the job at hand and nothing else. He’s ably supported by the always watchable Jean Reno as his reliable right-hand man. Stellan Skarsgard is particularly effective as a ruthless killer and a more than credible adversary for De Niro and Reno.

David Mamet’s screenplay provides a window into the post-Cold War espionage world (as he would also do later on with Spartan). It’s an open market with all sorts of ex-soldiers from all over the world selling their services to the highest bidder. After all, what do career soldiers do in between wars?

Frankenheimer brings his years of experience as an excellent journeyman director to Ronin. He doesn’t waste time with needless exposition and showy style. Like the characters in the film, he’s there to get the job done while also delivering an entertaining movie, harkening back to his Classic Hollywood contemporaries like Don Siegel. Ronin would be one of Frankenheimer’s last films (the less said about Reindeer Games the better) and it is a fitting swan song for the man who unfortunately died in 2002.

Special Features:

The two extras from the previous DVD edition are included on this one but is it really worth the double dip? It depends if you’re a fan of DVD extras. If the answer is yes than it is worth picking up this new addition as many aspects of the film are covered.

Carried over from the previous edition is an audio commentary by Frankenheimer. He talks about how to seamlessly match a shot done on location with one done on a set. He goes on to point out that the key relationship in the movie is between De Niro and Reno’s characters and made sure that their scenes together reflected this. Frankenheimer talks about the film’s muted colour palette and working in a ‘Scope aspect ratio. This is a very informative track detailing how to make a big budget action film in a way that is not bogged down by technology-heavy verbiage. Highly recommended.

Another carryover is the “Alternate Ending” that tweaks the existing one slightly for a more downbeat resolution for one character in particular.

The second disc contains all of the new extra material.

“Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane” is standard making of press kit material. The cast praise Frankenheimer’s direction and his ability to work with actors. He wanted to work with De Niro and actively pursued the actor for the film. Reno comes across as a very engaging person in his soundbites.

“Through the Lens with Director of Photography Robert Fraisse” gives some insight into his working methods. He describes Frankenheimer as a visually-oriented director.

“The Driving of Ronin” examines the car chases in the film. They often drove 100 miles an hour through the streets of Paris! The film’s stunt-car coordinator is interviewed and talks about his past history with racing cars and how he got involved in the movie. Apparently, the existing stunt-car team had been fired and Frankenheimer sought him out.

“Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Progress” sees this actress giving her impressions of working with Frankenheimer including telling some entertaining anecdotes. She also gives her impressions of working with somebody of De Niro’s stature. Like Reno, she comes across as a very engaging individual.

“Composing the Ronin Score.” Elia Cmiral talks about how he approached the scoring of this movie. Frankenheimer didn’t really offer much in the way of suggestions, leaving it up to Cmiral to figure it out the score on his own.

“In the Cutting Room with editor Tony Gibbs.” For him, editing is an intuitive process and all about making choices and conveying the right emotion for a given scene. He learned his craft from other, more experienced editors when he was a young man and would analyze how they edited a scene.

“Venice Film Festival Interviews with Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone” is a collection of interview soundbites that were sprinkled through the featurettes on this disc. De Niro is his usual minimal self, Reno seems very thoughtful and McElhone is quite engaging.

Finally, there is an “Animated Photo Gallery” with various stills, promotional pictures and behind the scenes pics.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 97%



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