4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Final masterpiece from the legendary John Frankenheimer.
The best action-adventure film or spy thriller made in the past few decades.
“Don’t you see? I never left.”
Three little words. So small, so minute and so seemingly insignificant that they could not possibly have any real impact on a story. Yet in Ronin they form the entire crux upon which the film and its deeply nuanced worldly characters are based. To have a film in this day and age so perfectly poised, so perfectly balanced on a razor’s edge and yet filled to the brim with great performances helmed by one of the great directors at the top of his game firing on all fronts is practically impossible to even fathom. That is has at least been remembered for one thing is some small consolation. Ronin is the only modern entry in the very small list of great car chases that include Bullitt, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups and To Live and Die In L.A..
Yet separating that one fact from the film as a whole does it a major disservice as it has long deserved a major revisiting as not only a modern classic but a great film. This is not because of its car chases, action sequences or the fact that it practically capped off the Eurothriller movement that was so prevalent in the 90’s. No, the reason is because it is a film that given a chance never leaves the mind fully.
“If there is any doubt then there is no doubt.”
How can this be, people will ask me. The film’s storyline is so threadbare and downplayed that it becomes a non-entity. The plot is essentially that various ex-government agents and foreign mercenaries are gathered together to steal a mysterious briefcase for an unknown party. Innumerable reversals, betrayals and plot twists ensue but the reason for the film’s staying power is its commitment to both reality and a heavy prevailing sense of world weariness. These characters are real people who are burdened with such a huge lifetime’s worth of pain, loss, bloodshed and that particular brand of absolute loneliness known only to spies and the devoted readers of espionage fiction.
Deep weight is conveyed in every single moment of character interplay, as the slightest glance or action can speak volumes. The dialogue is sparkling and note-perfect, stemming from a rewrite by an uncredited David Mamet. This gives the film’s world outlook such a beautiful layered sense of poetry that is most perfectly outlined in the defensive retorts of the ex-CIA man, known only as Sam, portrayed by Robert DeNiro in what is to date his last great screen role before he went into an endless string of forgettable pictures.
DeNiro’s Sam is a picture in himself. The audience can instantly tell that this man has been through it all and seen it all, much like an American version of LeCarre’s Alec Leamas. DeNiro brings a definite energy to his trademark low-key style that in a certain light reflects his fantastic turn in Midnight Run. The film’s opening has long been criticized for being overdrawn and slow but if examined closely perfectly sets up both the DeNiro character with practically no dialogue but also the dark and shadowy world of the film itself. All in a few minutes of silent exposition.
Sam is not only the lead character but in a way what the picture is really about. Never mind that the briefcase is the suggested goal-Sam’s pursuit of it invokes something other than money despite his continual claims to the contrary. We can get a sense of something else much larger behind his actions motivating them, perhaps something much greater than money. This reflects most in his relationship with the team’s equipment man, Vincent (Jean Reno, who has probably never been better-certainly not in any English language production) the Frenchman. That the others are practically only known by nationality adheres to their strict business-like code of work.
The film is a cryptic labyrinth of motivations and betrayals. These characters are forced to hedge all their bets not to mention their lives on the single turn of an event, with one insignificant miscalculation proving fatal. It is an absolute delight to see something in the espionage genre that actually has a working brain behind it. So long have we been bombarded with absolutely mindless and trivial spy thrillers that to come across one so perfectly formed and honest to the world it creates is beyond a breath of fresh air; it is mesmerizing. And behind such a grounded and multifaceted plot is a master perfectly working the controls. Ronin’s greatest strength is Frankenheimer’s seamless grasp of proper and classical filmmaking techniques. The picture is effortless and seamlessly constructed. It was the major return to form for Frankenheimer after several extremely strong television productions and sadly proved to be his own swan song in this regard. (The less said about the troubled Reindeer Games the better.)
The car chases deserve their legendary status. Nothing since has ever topped the sight of a BMW and Peugeot tearing through Paris reaching speeds of over one hundred miles per hour…in single takes….with the actors inside the cars…and everything being done one hundred percent practically! That Frankenheimer himself was a car nut is obvious. His trademark low to the ground car POV shots from Grand Prix (1967) return with an even greater degree of suspense which heightens every last nail biting moment of the film’s several chases. The realism is so incredible that only moments in Bullitt and Popeye Doyle’s furious pursuit of the EL train in The French Connection hold up as well.
Released with a number of CCE prints which heighten the silver content and minimize color, Ronin is a strikingly cold and dark picture to look at. The photography was conducted in Super35 which uses the spherical lens focus superiority to provide truly staggering trademark multicharacter focus shots the Frankenheimer so adored-and all without the obvious fakery of a split focus diopter. This also allowed for good usage of deep focus technique, which is truly a lost art. The sound mix, released originally only in DTS, is exceptional for the time and when properly represented still holds up very well today.
That Frankenheimer knew France and knew Paris like the back of his hand comes into play practically as soon as the film starts. Only someone who had both lived in and loved the country for years could make a picture that truly delves right into the back alleyways of many of the nation’s great cities. He was also thus able to get a number of permits for shooting that most would never be allowed to have in this day and age. This only aids the blending of reality with the so-called Eurothriller style, giving Ronin an edge over virtually every action thriller made since.
The alternate ending Frankenheimer wanted, is included on disc and would have given a poetic noir-ish ending had it been left in. However UA wasn’t so much of a fan and it works well without the extra scene, just perhaps not as completely as planned.
But again, it is the perfection of film technique which makes the film so incredibly strong. Frankenheimer trusts us to not have to be guided and respects the audience for actually having a brain thus not holding back from trusting us to follow the story. At no time are we ever spoken down to, nor is anything being spoon fed. This is why the film has become a cult favorite and appears on many late night cable channels, because its replayability is infinite.
The film opens with a small bit of text which explains the title. Ronin are masterless samurai, whose master has been killed thus throwing them back out into the world completely devoid of meaning or purpose. The mercenaries are thus modern day masterless samurai and must find their own purpose whatever worthless exercise it may be. The concept that these various operators are exactly like the Ronin of old Japan is an absolutely perfect metaphor for their continued existence: whatever may be left of it.
A true qualified masterpiece in every sense of the word. A forgotten and undervalued motion picture that has NEVER gotten the reception it so deserves; as the last great work of a master.
Released on Laserdisc and a DTS edition, DVD, CE 2 disc DVD and Blu-ray.
The DVDs are practically identical, stemming I presume from the LD master. The 2 disc version changes the color timing however a slight bit, has some infrequent combing artifacts, and is marginally sharper. The old disc includes a open matte copy that reveals more frame information from the Super35 production. The Blu-ray is a MPEG-2 transfer and is extremely outdated. It also reverts the color scheme to something more basic in the skintones losing the DVD’s slightly colder look which I attributed as being closer to the original CCE prints ordered by Frankenheimer. I think it is based on the CE master that had already been worked on in the 2000’s and appears very old.
Audio is best heard on the Blu-ray which at least gives us a lossless DTS-HDMA rendering. It comes across a slight bit canned and harsh in the upper ranges at times along with some dialog sounding a bit mono. I hope to soon check the LD audio of which the DTS track might outperform the lossless rendering due to the older format utilizing mainly untouched theatrical audio mixes.
All extras are on the 2 disc CE DVD and not on the Blu-ray as is typical of MGM held titles. Thus, you must obtain the DVD to watch them and for primarily fluff they are actually not bad at all. Best is Frankenheimer’s commentary which is a very detailed and frank discussion about the process and making of the film. Hearing it makes it even sadder that this proved to be his piece de resistance.
Verdict: BD and 2 disc CE DVD for extras.
You’re worried about saving your own skin?
–Yeah I am. It covers my body.