Release Date(s)1998 (June 20, 2023)
Studio(s)FGM Entertainment/MGM/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
In the aftermath of the Cold War, many former spies have become freelance mercenaries, operating in a secret world of uncertain loyalties that’s more dangerous than ever before. Ronin tells the story of a group of these agents, who have been hired by an IRA operative to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from an unknown, well-armed party. The pay is premium and there’s only one condition—no questions asked. But there are problems. The briefcase is up for sale and the Russians want it badly. And when you can’t trust the other members of your own team, how can you possibly place your life in their hands?
The word ‘ronin’ comes from the lore of feudal Japan, used to describe samurai whose masters had been killed and who wandered the land in shame looking for redemption. The comparison is apt; Ronin’s protagonists are as enigmatic as the title implies. Less is definitely more here. In that vein, there’s no point in revealing more of the plot—you simply need to see it for yourself.
In Ronin, veteran director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix) has created a taut, intense, and seductive thriller, that places its characters in harm’s way at an absolutely breathtaking pace. As a member of the old school of Hollywood filmmaking, Frankenheimer eschews the use of CGI and digital special effects when creating his action scenes. The result is that extra edge—a heightened sense of realism that’s lacking in so many of today’s thrillers. When you see these car chases (and there are several in the film), you’ll understand. The story takes us on a high-speed tour of France, with 100 mile-an-hour pursuits through city streets, back alleys, and winding mountain roads. Frankenheimer hired a team of French formula one drivers to do these stunts, and often placed the actors themselves in the cars with the drivers. So when you see Robert De Niro inside a car that’s doing a high-speed, four wheel drift around a Paris intersection, that’s really Robert De Niro. Ronin absolutely raises the bar for this kind of film action—you’ll rarely see better.
The script, as originally written by J.D. Zeik (and doctored by the acclaimed David Mamet under the pseudonym Richard Weisz), is a bit uneven, but is also tight and well-woven, with sparse dialogue and minimalist characterizations. These characters could easily have come across as one-dimensional, but you know everything you need to about them and the impressive cast makes them all feel authentic and lived in. Frankenheimer has assembled some serious talent here. De Niro is terrific as always, conveying so much information with just a subtle glance, or a slight movement. The great French actor Jean Reno matches him perfectly, step for step. The two play almost effortlessly against each other—so much so that it would be great to see them in another film together. And the rest of the ensemble, which includes Stellan Skarsgård, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale, and Jonathan Pryce, performs flawlessly. There’s even a nifty bit of stunt casting with Olympic champion Katarina Witt as a Russian ice skater.
Ronin was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by cinematographer Robert Fraisse (The Lover, Enemy at the Gates) in Super 35 (common top) format, using Arriflex 35 III, Arriflex 435, Panavision Panaflex Lightweight, and Panavision Panaflex Platinum cameras with fast Panavision Primo spherical lenses, and it was finished photochemically for theaters in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. For its release on Ultra HD, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has taken advantage of a new 4K scan of the original camera negative (this is definitely not the 2017 scan, which was used to master Arrow’s Blu-ray release—reviewed here) and they’ve completed a new HDR color grade and digital remastering as well (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are options on this disc). The result is impressive; both KLSC’s 4K disc and the new Blu-ray in the packaging are a major improvement over the Arrow BD presentation (more on that in a minute). Overall image detail is abundant and clean, with precise texturing. You can see it in facial features, as well as brick, stucco, and stonework, not to mention the French rooftops and rural landscapes. Photochemical grain is light but organic. All of this is critical, because Fraisse and Frankenheimer frequently employ deep focus staging and framing in this film—things are happening in the background that are often as important as the foreground action. The film’s color palette has always been somewhat muted, but skin tones are lovely and accurate, and there’s wonderful nuance and subtlety in the various hues and shadings, especially visible in the establishing shots of Nice. Many scenes are set at night, or in dimly-lit, grungy environments—warehouses, garages, alleys—and the expanded contrast handles this well. Shadows are nicely black, yet plenty of detail remains visible in them. Highlights are naturally bold and luminous. Best of all, the disc itself is a BD-100, so the image has plenty of room to breathe with a high bitrate (consistently above 70 Mbps).
Comparing the KLSC Blu-ray to Arrow’s previous release, the latter is notably softer looking and significantly darker, with too much detail lost in black-crushed shadows. Colors are more nuanced and accurate on the new disc as well. When you add the improved resolution of 4K and the benefits of HDR, this edition is hands down superior—both the HD and the 4K. The Ultra HD presentation here is splendid indeed. Note that the Arrow disc shows both the MGM and UA logos at the start of the film. The new KLSC presentation replaces the MGM logo with Kino Lorber’s.
The film’s sound is included in two lossless choices (on both the 4K and the Blu-ray): English 5.1 and 2.0 in DTS-HD Master Audio format. The 5.1 mix is very similar to the 5.1 found on the Arrow Blu-ray (which was also DTS-HD MA), but it’s not exactly the same. This sounds like a new encode of the 5.1 stems and is a little smoother and more nuanced than the Arrow disc’s mix. The Arrow disc also included a 2.0 stereo mix, but that was in PCM format, so the stereo here is a new encode as well. Whichever you prefer (the film’s original theatrical mix was DTS 5.1), the sonic experience is terrific. Ronin is a film in which major action sequences take place without music—you’re simply hearing the growl of car engines, the screech of tires, and the crack of gunfire. The clarity and resolution are as good in softer passages as they are during the more explosive action. Bass is firm and pleasing, while the surround staging and movement are lively and natural sounding. You’ll hear cars roar up from behind, flash past to one side, and fade into the distance in front of you. Bullets ricochet, crowds scream all around. The dialogue is clean and clear at all times, and the score is presented in excellent fidelity, with pulsing staccato percussion and haunting dirges that hint at classic samurai films. Optional English subtitles are included.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new Ultra HD release includes the film in 4K on UHD and also 1080p HD on Blu-ray (which again is mastered from the new 4K scan). Both the 4K disc and the Blu-ray include the following special feature:
- Audio Commentary with John Frankenheimer
This was recorded for the original DVD release and it’s a great listen. To this, the Blu-ray adds the following:
- Close-Up: Interview with Cinematographer Robert Fraisse (HD – 31:28)
- In the Ronin Cutting Room with Editor Tony Gibbs (SD – 18:57)
- An Actor’s Process with Natascha McElhone (SD – 13:58)
- Composing the Ronin Score with Elia Cmiral (SD – 11:53)
- The Driving of Ronin with Stunt-Car Coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez (SD – 15:30)
- Through the Lens with Cinematographer Robert Fraisse (SD – 17:58)
- The Venice Film Festival Interviews with Robert De Niro, Natascha McElhone, and Jean Reno (SD – 20:42)
- Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane (SD – 17:46)
- Ronin: Alternate Ending (SD – 1:50)
- Ronin Trailer (HD – 2;29)
- The Manchurian Candidate Trailer (HD – 1:53)
- The Train Trailer (SD – 4:35)
- The Holcroft Covenant Trailer (SD – 2:49)
- 52 Pick-Up Trailer (HD – 1:45)
- True Confessions Trailer (HD – 2:16)
- Mad Dog and Glory Trailer (SD – 2:11)
- The Score Trailer (HD – 2:30)
- The Crimson Rovers Trailer (SD – 1:57)
This batch of extras includes everything from the original 1999 MGM DVD release (and their later Blu-ray) save for an SD photo gallery and a DVD-ROM online event link. Included from the Arrow Blu-ray release is a newer interview with Fraisse called Close-Up. But missing from the Arrow Blu-ray is an HD photo gallery, the Cinephile: You Talkin’ to Me? appreciation of Robert De Niro by Quentin Tarantino from 1994 (SD – 27:01), and the liner notes booklet, so you may wish to keep that edition to retain this content. Note that the trailers here are a mix of HD and SD, but some of the HD ones look like they’re upsampled.
Ronin is not quite a perfect film but it’s pretty damn close, a fine and brooding actioner that’s well worth your time, especially if you enjoyed De Niro in Heat (1995) and Reno in Léon: The Professional (1994). Thankfully, the film has aged very well indeed, and Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new 4K release is a significant upgrade over the previously good Arrow Blu-ray. This is—hands down—the best Ronin has ever looked on disc before and it belongs in the collection of any self-respecting cinephile. Highly recommended!
- Bill Hunt