Revisiting This Crime Classic May Heighten Your Esteem Of It
Ronin hit theaters in my late teens and became a go-to favorite of my college days. Slick, modern car chases, an old school crime vibe, and a vaguely Japanese patina to an otherwise European-flavored thriller, all combined with a cast to die for, made this a beloved crime film. Over the years, however, my estimation of the film seems to have cooled. An opportunity to cover and revisit the film upon the arrival of Arrow’s Blu-ray release felt more like a nostalgic opportunity to delve into an old favorite I hadn’t hung out with in a while. I wasn’t prepared to be absolutely blown away by the storytelling, style, character work, and quiet cool that Ronin truly represents. This isn’t just a solid late ’90s spy thriller, it’s a true entry in the espionage annals.
It’s also an absolute masterclass of tension. Ronin was the film that put director John Frankenheimer on my radar. I still haven’t seen every last one of his films, but he’s got a handful of great films to his name, with early career achievements like The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Birdman of Alcatraz. A couple of mid-career standouts include The French Connection II and Black Sunday. Then you’ve got Ronin, an example of a late career home run on par with George Miller’s roaring return to the Mad Max franchise with Fury Road. Ronin is famous for its car chases, and they feel like they’re crafted with the ferocious speed of a filmmaker half Frankenheimer’s age. But the speed and ferocity belie a mature filmmaker utilizing restraint even amidst the chase. Ronin is cool and collected; portraying professionals doing what they’re the best in the world at, with all the fat removed.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Robert De Niro’s character Sam. With a career spanning decades, often portraying tough guys, Sam is perhaps the most badass “action hero” of De Niro’s entire career. Much like the tone of the film as a whole, however, Sam’s explosive capability of violence isn’t flashy. He’s a thinker. An observer. He’s shown to overthink situations, set fall back plans and traps… all of which border on conspiratorial paranoia which his fellow heist-for-hire crewmates point out freely. Except that Sam’s caution is born of experience; wisdom of the spy craft. Sam is a long-game operative, with uncanny abilities to observe backed up by unparalleled competence with the tools of the trade, right on up to rocket launchers shot from the sunroof of a speeding Mercedes.
Ronin wants to have its cake and eat it too… and it succeeds wildly. It’s both a taught, thrill packed action adventure and a cool, collected, intelligent espionage tale with more than a few dashes of reflection on the political age and insights into human behavior.
Brought together by a mysterious Irish woman (Natascha McElhone as Deirdre) to steal a case from a group of professionals, our crew are masterless agents, the Ronin of the title, selling their skills to the highest bidder. True mercenaries who put their lives on the line for a paycheck more than for any particular political cause. As such, we learn about our characters through their actions even as they size up one another the same way. Sean Bean’s character Spence proves himself a loudmouth and braggart, and in one of cinema’s most epic takedowns, Spence is exposed as such when Sam very publicly and thoroughly humiliates him. Spence’s entire character arc exists to bolster our understanding of just how cunning and interested in self preservation Sam truly is. And while Spence exits the film with his life intact, he’s been so burned you almost feel more empathy for him than you do the many bystanders and less-fortunates who meet violent ends here.
Which is another remarkable detail setting Frankenheimer’s film above the pack. The four-quadrant-ization of our action films today has smoothed out all the rough edges, allowing audiences to believe falling sky scrapers can be a cool setting for an epic action sequence in which the death toll is somehow not catastrophic. In Ronin, we’re following around a bunch of soldiers-for-hire as they plot murder over a briefcase (contents unknown), and innocent bystanders left and right are suffering the consequences. Bystanders are expressly shown to be killed or harmed throughout the experience, lending a very intentional level of depth and weight and moral ambiguity to otherwise slick action. When our finest operatives are working for money instead of king and country… are their acts of violence to be judged differently?
Culminating in a thoughtful, human, and politically savvy final act which upends the very premise and title of the film, tight action and slick character dynamics conclude with intelligent food for thought; something very few action thrillers strive for, much less succeed in. Sam proves to be that rare cinematic hero who is able to display selflessness matched only by his own sheer, dogged, ruggedly individualistic skill set. Above money or love, he’s an impossible force to be reckoned with.
Frankenheimer simply aced the creation of Ronin on every conceivable level. Seemingly the pinnacle of writer J.D. Zeik’s filmography, David Mamet also receives a co-author credit here (under the false name Richard Weisz), which is felt in the final product. Oscar nominated cinematographer Robert Fraisse delivers elite work, and the cast surrounding and including De Niro are impeccably assembled. It’s all of these details and more which, upon a couple decades of removal, allow Ronin to shine above and beyond many of its contemporaries to join the pantheon of all-time great spy action thrillers.
Unquestionably the definitive home video release for this title, I spent what felt like hours delving into the special features and still didn’t make my way through all of them. With a gorgeous 4K transfer overseen by Fraisse, and a new and in-depth interview with the cinematographer, Ronin is certainly treated as the gem it is with this release. Including brand new cover art (from Oink Creative) and a hefty and beautifully rendered book of liner notes, this Arrow release of Ronin will easily rank among the very best home video releases of 2017.
- Brand new 4K restoration
- John Frankenheimer audio commentary
- New interview with director of photography Robert Fraisse
- 1994 appreciation of Robert De Niro from Quentin Tarantino
- Ronin: Filming In The Fast Lane archival featurette
- Through the Lens: archival Robert Fraisse interview
- The Driving Of Ronin: archival featurette about the film’s cars and stunt driving
- Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Process featurette
- Composing the Ronin Score: archival interview with Elia Cmiral
- In The Ronin Cutting Room: archival interview with editor Tony Gibbs
- Venice Film Festival archival interviews
- Alternate Ending
- Theatrical trailer & image gallery
And I’m Out.
Ronin is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video US.