Updated: Jul 28, 2019
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Blu-ray; 1998; R for strong violence and some profanity
Best extra: Commentary with director John Frankenheimer
JOHN FRANKENHEIMER was nearing 70 when he directed this gritty, old-fashioned Euro-caper – using Paris, his favorite city as the backdrop for two of the most incredible car chase scenes ever filmed. A racecar driver himself, the American director also filmed "Grand Prix" (1966), he hired more than 150 stunt drivers zooming up to 120 mph, and wrecked 80 cars, making "Ronin" the perfect candidate for a new 4K restoration from Arrow Video.
It's a modern day twist on the masterless samurai, who wander the countryside as swordsmen for hire. Originally the brainchild of J.D. Zeik, who had read James Clavell's novel "Shogun" when he was 15, the idea simmered for years. After seeing the silhouettes of heavily-armed gendarmes in Nice, Zeik wrote his first screenplay. David Mamet then retooled it for filming under the pseudonym "Richard Weisz."
"The subject leaned itself to assembling an international cast [to play] a gang of ex-intelligence people," Frankenheimer says in one of the archive featurettes. His cast includes Natascha McElhone (Deidre) and Jonathan Pryce (Seamus) playing IRA operatives, who recruit five men to snatch a seriously guarded metal briefcase. (We never learn its contents, a perfect McGuffin) Robert De Niro (Sam) leads as an ex-CIA agent, with "The Professional" Jean Reno (Vincent); Stellan Skarsgård plays Gregor, ex-KGB and electronics expert; Sean Bean as Spence and Skipp Sudduth as Larry are the team's drivers.
Virginian Sudduth, a graduate from George Washington High School in Danville, Virginia describes Frankenheimer's direction as pointblank: "You don't earn points by smashing into walls and I don't want to see those brake lights."
Frankenheimer staged all of the chase scenes, with stunt-car coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez. "Every stunt man in the world would have dreamed of making a film like this with Frankenheimer," Lagniez says in "Filming in the Fast Lane." Special cars were assembled to capture De Niro and McElhone behind the wheel, while stunt-drivers in the trunks handled the actual driving, accelerator and brakes. Once into filming the chases, Frankenheimer was "on fire," McElhone says. "You thought he cared about the actors and their performance – we were nothing compared to the cars and the speed. He couldn't get enough of it." There was no second-unit with "Ronin," Frankenheimer orchestrated every shot for four months.
This unofficial 20th Anniversary Edition was scanned from the original 35mm camera negative (2.35:1 aspect ratio) in Burbank, Calif., by Arrow Video with far superior results than the gloomy and flat 2009 Fox version. French cinematographer Robert Fraisse supervised the restoration and color grading in London. It extracts the right balance of natural film grain and Frankenheimer's deliberate desaturated color palette – a product of the photochemical process from Deluxe Labs, which deepens the blacks and strips the image of primary colors. Sharpness is excellent, and the soundtrack has also been restored.
Fraisse, who also filmed "Hotel Rwanda," "Enemy at the Gates," and "The Notebook," provides a new 30-minute interview highlighting his career and his working relationship with Frankenheimer, who never looked through the camera while on set. Even so, the director knew exactly what he wanted, telling the camera operator the exact lens to be used. Frankenheimer loved short-focus lens (wide angle), which gives the audience a clear, deep field of focus, showcasing each of the characters in the foreground, middle ground and background. He was a master at positioning his cast within the frame, evident in all his films.
His career spanned from the late 1950s directing 27 CBS "Playhouse 90" live television dramas, then some of the best political thrillers of the day such as "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) and "Seven Days in May" (1964). Burt Lancaster was his go-to actor; they teamed for "The Young Savages" (1961), "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), "Seven Days in May," and, my personal favorite, "The Train" (1964), a World War II drama filmed in France, in which Lancaster plays a French resistance fighter trying to keep the Nazis from smuggling masterpiece paintings into Germany.
Frankenheimer was close to the Kennedy family, driving Bobby Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles that June night in 1968. After Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullet, the grieving Frankenheimer and his wife moved to Paris.
His commentary is a treasure trove of stories, cinematic knowhow and insight, a perfect gift for avid film students and cinemaphiles. He opens the track saying how much he wanted to start the film on the narrow steps on the southern end of the Rue Drevet, in the Montmartre district of Paris.
An enclosed 31-page essay from Travis Crawford says, "'Ronin' ends much as it began – with a meeting in a chilly rainy Paris café, this time during the day rather the night, and with more trust (and more injuries) between the clandestine attendees."
Frankenheimer made one more theatrical film, the forgettable "Reindeer Games," but completed his career with HBO's eight-Emmy nominated "Path to War," the story of President Johnson's decisions involving the Vietnam War, finishing just before his death from a massive stroke in 2002.
John Frankenheimer, we miss your style of filmmaking. They just don't make them like you anymore.
― Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer
4K Restoration trailer