A ronin is a samurai who has been disgraced after his master has been killed. Roaming the land as a bandit or hired hand, the ronin does what they can to survive even though they are trained to kill. It’s the perfect title for a film about a group of hired criminals to steal a briefcase worth the lives of many. Arrow Video recently rereleased Ronin on Blu-Ray in a stunning a 4K presentation and we were lucky enough to nab a copy for review. Does this 1998 film hold up after twenty years?
Three years prior to Ronin there was a film called Heat, which offered a look at criminals who take their jobs seriously and cops who aren’t as heroic as you might think. Both movies focus on bad guys who are somewhat good, include big action sequences, and even bigger guns. Oh, and an actor named Robert De Niro leads both of them. I bring that film up because both capture the brotherhood and humanity of a criminal very well. This films focus on a bunch of bad guys is done well as it reminds us they’re human in a variety of ways. As the story progresses we get a sense that a camaraderie is built between these men, but also that being a criminal on a stakeout isn’t so glamorous. For every car chase there’s a scene of the group of characters drinking coffee, eating sandwiches, or just waiting around until the time is right. There’s a realistic lens shown on the type of characters who are good at what they do they just, unfortunately, do bad things.
David Mamet co-wrote Ronin with J.D. Zeik and it’s rather obvious how much influence Mamet had on this script. Given Mamet’s proclivity for sometimes natural, sometimes strange dialogue, I wasn’t surprised to revisit this film with a sense of interest, but also confusion. Characters sound natural for the most part, but there’s always a bit of dialogue that’s either vague or strange given the scene and I think Mamet relishes these types of interchanges. It’s a reminder in real life what we say isn’t always perfect or meaningful, which is rare given how dialogue in most films serves to progress plot or deliver exposition. This dialogue can also be somewhat silly and pull you out of the film, but because of its naturalness it also stands up after 20 years.
With a cast like this one you’d have to imagine fans will be coming back to it again and again forever. With De Niro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, and Stellan Skarsgard, the cast is A-list from top to bottom. True, some of these actors weren’t quite leading actors at the time (I’m looking at you Bean), but the proof is in the pudding as everyone does a stand up job committing to their roles. De Niro in particular is quite good and given the longer takes I imagine a lesser cast could have blown this film.
Then again, with legendary director John Frankenheimer behind the camera there’s no wonder so much of this film is excellent. It’s also probably why such a great cast was pulled together to make it. Frankenheimer has a deft hand from how he frames shots–many of the group are all standing in frame from background to foreground which adds an element most films miss–to the incredible car chase scenes. Given how popular the Fast and the Furious series is I imagine most fans of those could dig these car chase scenes, especially with how realistic they are. There aren’t any CGI tricks in Ronin; instead the film is populated with actual cars crashing and close calls for the heroes. Sure, De Niro wasn’t really driving, but given the blocking and well timed shots it’s a wonder how many takes it took to capture such realistic looking car chases.
Of course the car chases are why most folks will be buying this film since there are two long car chases that rival anything that’s come since. Frankenheimer shot these chases with an eye for the scenery and cities they take place, which further grounds them in reality. From Nice to Paris, these chases take place on real roads with seemingly real civilians inches from these vehicles. It’s no wonder many have compared this film to The French Connection since it’s so good at capturing the reality of a car chase from every crash or explosion.
It’s not the greatest film, though, with some awkward dialogue being a main issue, but also the basic premise and the utilization of the MacGuffin being the bigger issue. MacGuffin’s are great and are used in many action films for a reason: they give characters something quick to explain and chase after. That said, this film takes the MacGuffin and turns up the ridiculousness of the plot to a new level. The characters are basically chasing a briefcase hither and yonder as it changes hands and you grow increasingly frustrated as to its purpose or why any of this matters. When character get killed and the stakes rise, you’ll be wondering why any of these characters don’t just quit and go home. The concept of the ronin is used to somewhat explain there’s a bigger purpose to what they do, but you won’t buy it particularly when it comes to the greedier characters. Given the slower start of the film there’s a lot expected of the viewer to hang in and hope things get more interesting. Unfortunately the slower pace in the opening crops up here and there, which only further makes the MacGuffin an unsuitable drive for character motivations. There’s a brief explanation as to how it’s used in the last minutes of the film, but it’s too little too late.
Among the extras on the disc there are archival documentaries previously seen on releases as well as an alternate ending which was, thankfully, not used. The big new feature Arrow Video adds is an interview with cinematographer Robert Fraisse which runs 31 minutes and covers his career and experience working with Frankenheimer. Fraisse details how he broke into the industry back in the 60’s as well as working with Jean Renoir. There’s also a featurette from 1994 that has Quentin Tarantino detailing why Robert De Niro is the greatest, though this is mostly a puff piece with little new or interesting insight. Those of you wishing for a commentary are in luck with one from John Frankenheimer which was recorded back in 2002.
An extra in a way, this film is remastered for 4K TV’s. Given the quality of this production, including the richness of blacks on screen, Arrow did their job here.
Aside from some awkward dialogue and a MacGuffin that’ll press your patience, this is a film that will assuredly stand the test of time. The cast is stellar, the car chases excellent, and the approach of showing criminals banding together in a realistic way will most likely never be done as well again. Audiences are too impatient and in need of stimulation for an action film to be so deftly handled.
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