I slept on John Frankenheimer's terrific Ronin when it was released into theaters in 1998, not catching up with it until I got it for free on DVD as part of a "buy three, get one" special some store was running on MGM discs. Finding nothing else I wanted to own, I picked the movie up blind and watched it a few weeks later and realized I had made a mistake not seeing it sooner. Ronin is a reminder of what talented professionals are capable of doing both on screen and off.
Robert De Niro plays Sam, former special ops and now gun for hire brought in on a job alongside Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgård, and Natascha McElhone to steal a heavily-guarded briefcase, the contents of which are not explained and do not matter. That's about as much plot as needs to be explained for Ronin, a film that's much more dependent on movement than it is on story. Between Frankenheimer's penchant for exploring character through action and co-writer David Mamet's (writing here under the name Richard Weisz) tendencies towards minimalism, Ronin is an exercise in pure craft: clearly-defined characters, smart dialogue, good performances, expert direction. Everyone does his or her job well. If you think that sort of thing is commonplace, watch Ronin again and see what we are so often missing in movies these days.
Robert De Niro has had a pretty rough go of it in the 2000s, first doing turns in high-profile comedies like Meet the Parents before slumming it in junk like Showtime and Righteous Kill and Last Vegas and Dirty Grandpa and even some direct-to-DVD titles -- a huge departure for the man once widely considered to be the greatest living film actor. While he's had a few good performances in the last 17 years (mostly under the direction of David O. Russell), Ronin is one of his last best roles. He doesn't have an especially tricky part to play, but he imbues Sam with a sense of history and a code -- hence the title -- and, best of all, a relaxed looseness in his friendship with Jean Reno. The bond they form over the course of the film is one of my favorite things about Ronin, as is the total professionalism with which De Niro's Sam and Reno's Vincent approach their assignments and subsequent payback after being double crossed. Mamet has long been fascinated by men who live by a code, which makes him perfect to write Ronin. It's a movie about those with a code and those without.
Ronin is one of the unsung greats of '90s action and the second-to-last great John Frankenheimer movie (Reindeer Games 4 lyfe). Instead of plastic movie stars or lunkhead action genre regulars, it's got an international cast of grown-ups and character actors. It's skillful in a way that fewer and fewer films in this genre are anymore. Come for the kickass car chase, stay for everything else.
Blu-ray release date: August 29, 2017
DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)/LPCM 2.0 (English)
Blu-ray Bonus Features:
John Frankenheimer Commentary
Interview with Director of Photography Robert Fraisse
"You Talkin' to Me?" - Robert De Niro appreciation by Quentin Tarantino
"Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane" archival featurette
"Through the Lens" archival interview with Robert Fraisse
"The Driving of Ronin" archival featurette on stunts
"Natascha McElhone: An Actor's Process" archival interview
"Composing the Ronin Score" archival interview with composer Elia Cmiral
"In the Ronin Cutting Room" archival interview with editor Tony Gibbs
Archival interviews with Rober De Niro, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone from the Venice Film Festival