Ronin
MGM // R // $34.98 // February 24, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 28, 2009
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
The end
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of the Cold War left a small army of elite operatives the world over without a purpose and without a paycheck. Like the ronin -- the masterless samurai -- of feudal Japan, some are still motivated by honor while others are driven purely by self-interest and greed. A handful of these mercs from throughout the globe (played by Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, and Skipp Sudduth) are assembled for what ought to be a routine mission in France. They don't know each other, they don't know who they're working for, and they have only the most vaguely sketched idea of what their target is, exactly. The plan, their Irish liaison (Natascha McElhone) outlines, is to ambush a heavily guarded convoy and acquire a suitcase. They're being paid not to ask questions, told coldly that whatever it is that's locked in that case won't affect the parameters of their mission. Sam (De Niro) is frustrated by the near-total lack of information, but he's hungry enough to roll with the punches until being repeatedly stung by incompetence and betrayal. Reeling from the sabotage of the initial assault, Sam and the tattered shreds of what's left of his team regroup, carving their way through one double-cross to another on a search for vengeance.

One of the final films helmed by the late John Frankenheimer, Ronin has the feel of a 1970s paranoid thriller with the sprawling production values and backdrop of the 1990s. It sidesteps all of the modern action clichés, not derailed by smirking one-liners or much in the way of romance. Even its score sounds as if it could've been nicked from Three Days of the Condor rather than leaning on standard issue techno beats or chugging electric guitars. The screenplay bears the distinctive stamp of David Mamet, writing here under a pseudonym, and it's sharp and witty without mugging to the camera the way most big-budget action flicks do. Mamet resists the urge to pull back the veil on his shadowy mercenaries, and the fact that their motivations and backstories go unexplained only adds to the pervasive sense of intrigue. Ronin never makes the mistake of overexplaining itself, and the lack of a moustache-twirling villain is a welcomed change of pace.

Ronin assembles
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an outstanding cast, and although it's deliberate that so little is revealed about any of these characters, the actors quietly infuse them with so much personality that there's no need for rambling exposition. Standing out in particular are Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. Deceptively quiet and doggedly loyal, Vincent is one of my favorite turns by Reno since his breakthrough role in Léon. Ronin marks the last great action/drama performance by De Niro; as many lackluster movies as he's churned out in the years since, none have approached the intensity and authority he radiates here.

The movie's greatest asset, though, is John Frankenheimer. Building on the exceptional breakneck chases and races littered throughout The French Connection II and Grand Prix, Frankenheimer has crafted for Ronin some of the most dazzling car chases ever committed to film. Even with the digital wizardry in the modern filmmaking toolkit, no movie produced in the decade since -- not The Bourne Identity and even not Death Proof -- has come close to the scale or scope of its chases. It's all the more remarkable that Ronin's startlingly elaborate stuntwork was executed practically rather than hammered out in a render farm in Palo Alto. If I have any complaint at all about Ronin, it's that the sprawling car chase leading up to the climax leaves what's left of the movie falling flat by comparison. The assault that follows doesn't crackle with nearly that same intensity, and the movie closes with a denouement that thankfully does lean away from the usual expectations but still seems somewhat rushed.

Ronin culls from several different genres -- action, '70s espionage thrillers, and even classic heists -- to craft something so much more distinctive than the glut of interchangable action flicks flooding theaters as the 1990s drew to a close. Sharply written with a minimalist bent, unwaveringly intense, and spectacularly directed and acted, Ronin is an adrenaline rush that's too confident to bother pandering. It's a movie that, if released properly, would've been an easy recommendation. It's a shame then that it's MGM fielding this Blu-ray disc of Ronin. The studio has time and again warmed over stale, mediocre transfers and discarded entire discs worth of extras, and Ronin is saddled with the same dismal treatment as virtually every other catalog title they've shat out. While I would've preferred to give Ronin a much-deserved enthusiastic recommendation, this lazy, lackluster, and grossly overpriced Blu-ray disc doesn't warrant anything more than a rental. Rent It.


Video
It's disheartening to see that MGM is clearly recycling a high-definition master struck a full decade ago. Disinterestedly encoded with MPEG-2, this is a lackluster effort in every possible respect. Black levels appear to be elevated, contrast is muddy, there isn't any tactile sense of depth or dimensionality, and clarity and fine detail are anemic at best. Tight close-ups still manage to impress but settle into an indifferent shrug whenever the camera eases back. This stale transfer suffers from an overly digital appearance, falling much closer to what I'd expect to see on a cable channel like HDNet Movies than a newly-minted Blu-ray disc. Even with as low as MGM prefers to set the bar, this is a substandard release.

This low bitrate MPEG-2 encode fits comfortably on a single layer Blu-ray disc with plenty of room to spare.

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Audio
Although Ronin does boast a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, it's nothing particularly remarkable. To be fair, there's no denying that the sound design is exceptional, seizing control of the six channels it has on hand through cracks of gunfire, cars careening through the streets of France at breakneck speeds, and a slew of explosions. It's an aggressive and immersive mix, but the dynamics sound off to me. The low-end is overcooked, sounding rumbly and bassy rather than full-bodied. The treble -- dialogue in particular -- comes across as harsh and brittle. Lossless audio is appreciated, but without a proper remaster, it doesn't amount to much.

Dolby Digital dubs are offered in French and Spanish alongside subtitle streams in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean. There are a handful of subtitles to accommodate the French dialogue scattered throughout the film, and owners of constant image height projection rigs can take note that the subs never spill over into the letterboxing bars.


Extras
All of the extras from previous DVD releases have been discarded, including an audio commentary with John Frankenheimer, an alternate ending, nearly two hours of interviews and featurettes, and a still gallery. Despite having a slew of extras on-hand, MGM could only be bothered to include a theatrical trailer here along with plugs for The Usual Suspects, Walking Tall, and Out of Time.

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The Final Word
Bond aside, MGM appears to have almost complete contempt for their catalog titles on Blu-ray. As much of an admirer of Ronin as I am, from its dazzling car chases to a searing leading turn by Robert De Niro, its release on Blu-ray is much too overpriced and underfeatured for me to consider recommending. Rent It.


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