A first-rate spy thriller that's more than the sum of its parts, John Frankenheimer's underrated Ronin (1998) offers the viewer more than just a solid premise and a handful of heart-stopping car chases. With its distinctly European flavor and razor-sharp screenplay by David Mamet (credited here under the name "Richard Weisz"), Ronin stands out for another reason: it's got a fantastic cast, including Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård and Jonathan Pryce. Additionally, we're actually treated to a believable story populated by believable characters---and while there's certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional style-over-substance action flick, Ronin makes use of a much more satisfying formula. We're not carefully spoon-fed along the way, there aren't any cheesy one-liners or corny bad guys and there's no flavor-of-the-month soundtrack and subsequent product tie-ins.
For the new folks, here's the general outline: a group of tough guys from around the globe are recruited by a mysterious Irish woman, though exactly why they've been brought together isn't made completely clear. They know little more than their main objective: to steal a briefcase and bring it back to her. Of course, the contents of the case aren't revealed to the men (and, in turn, us), but they're of major interest to a number of parties around the globe. The mysterious backgrounds of each player give first-time viewers plenty of reason to stay on their toes; if nothing else, the mystery of who's planning the next double-cross helps to speed things along.
Of course, the aforementioned car chases are the icing on the cake. From The French Connection to The Bourne Identity, the high-speed pursuit is a celebrated staple to spy thrillers and straight-laced action films alike, and Ronin's blessed with at least one of the greatest in American film. Again, though, the action is only a part of why Ronin remains an unpredictable and highly entertaining film that holds up extremely well, nearly a decade after its theatrical release. Ardent fans of the late John Frankenheimer's last memorable film (sorry, Reindeer Games) don't need an excuse to watch it again, while first-time interested parties have much to look forward to.
Upon its original release on DVD in 1999, Ronin was a solid one-disc package that still holds up very well. Proportionally, it's a better release than this 2-Disc Collector's Edition, but that's no reason to count this one out early. Many fans of the film will be upset to know the technical presentation hasn't really been improved upon---though as mentioned earlier, the original disc still holds up very well. With that said, the assortment of new bonus features on Disc 2 are relatively good; at the very least, this new package is a mild upgrade that adds a bit more weight to the main feature.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Earlier DVD reports have claimed one of two things: either (a) the transfer found here is mildly different than the first release, or (b) it's exactly the same. It's difficult to say for certain; this 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks pretty darn identical, if not a tiny bit brighter (NOTE: the 1.33:1 open matte transfer found on the double-sided original release is not on board here). For all intents and purposes, the overall similarity is only a mild disappointment at the very worst: the muted color palette looks good, image detail is quite fine and black levels are handled well. A small bit of digital combing was spotted during a few scenes, but nothing overly distracting. With that said, Ronin may have benefited from a slight clean-up job---especially since it makes the double-dip recommendation a bit tougher.
Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix sounds very good; in addition to the same 5.1 French dub that also returns here, this new edition also sports a 2.0 Spanish dub and subtitles for all three languages. Dialogue is clean and clear---in fact, the only challenge may be deciphering a few of the thicker accents---while the music and atmosphere are both very solid. A DTS upgrade may have been interesting to hear, but it's hard to be disappointed overall.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, these all-new menu designs are a bit on the generic side, but they're easy to navigate. This 121-minute film is still divided into 32 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. The packaging isn't bad overall; while I prefer the original cover art for its darker mood, this two-disc release (housed in a slim double keepcase with a matching matte-finish slipcover) still looks sharp. No inserts were included.
Let's get one thing out of the way: the first disc in this package contains the same bonus features as the original release (that's an Audio Commentary with John Frankenheimer and an Alternate Ending, for those keeping score at home). The second disc features "new" extras---though most look to have been recorded on-set, either during or after production, the majority will be of interest to fans of Ronin. Kicking things off is "Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane" (18 minutes), a behind-the-scenes featurette that focuses on the director's approach to the film. There's also "Through the Lens" (also 18 minutes), a segment focusing on DP Robert Fraisse and how his style shaped the finished product, as well as "The Driving of Ronin" (16 minutes, below left), an interesting look at the fantastic car chases sprinkled throughout the film.
The featurettes continue with "Natascha McElhone: An Actor's Process" (15 minutes), a brief look at the leading lady and her experiences on the set, as well as "Composing the Ronin Score" (12 minutes) with Elia Cmaril. There's also "In the Cutting Room" (20 minutes)---no deleted scenes, unfortunately, but there's a nice look at the edited process that's worth watching at least once. Closing out the film-related extras is an Animated Photo Gallery (4 minutes) and a slightly dry series of Venice Film Fest Interviews with DeNiro, Reno and McElhone (21 minutes total). While a longer, more concise documentary may have been easier to get lost in, it's nice to see such a diverse set of featurettes on board here. It's a real shame there still aren't any deleted scenes or promotional-based extras (trailers, TV spots, poster galleries, etc.), but there's still a decent amount of content that ardent Ronin fans should really appreciate.
Featuring a smart story, memorable characters and plenty of action, Ronin remains an overlooked gem that's better than ever on DVD. With that said, this double dip---warranted for the seven-year gap since the first release, not because the original disc was bad---will only appeal to those who enjoy extras; the same technical presentation holds up, but there's still a bit of room for improvement. Those who only care about A/V quality shouldn't feel obligated to pick this up, but those who like dessert after dinner should consider this modest upgrade a worthy and affordable purchase. Those who still don't own it on DVD, of course, have absolutely no reason to pass up Ronin a second time. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.