Off the Shelf: Ronin

Although it wasn’t much of a box office smash back in 1998, John Frankenheimer’s action thriller Ronin eventually became a cult hit on video, largely due to its terrific car chases. The film has been released on Blu-ray twice to date – first by MGM in 2009 and then in 2017 as a remastered Special Edition from Arrow Video. A recent Arrow sale at DiabolikDVD gave me an opportunity to pick up and watch the latter.

Ronin: Special Edition

Theatrical Release Date: September 5, 1998
Blu-ray Release Date: August 29, 2017
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Jonathan Pryce
Blu-ray Special Features: Audio commentary, alternate ending, new interview, vintage interviews and featurettes, trailer, image gallery

Once an old-guard Hollywood master who’d made lasting classics such as Birdman of Alcatraz, Grand Prix, and of course The Manchurian Candidate in the 1960s, director John Frankenheimer struggled in later years and, by the late 1990s, had literally not had a box office hit in decades. A long string of flops including 52 Pick-Up, Dead Bang, and the disastrous The Island of Dr. Moreau might have crippled or ended another filmmaker’s career. Fortunately, Frankenheimer had more success on television during this period, taking home four back-to-back Emmys from 1994 to 1998. The fact that he could quickly follow a bomb like Moreau with the acclaimed George Wallace TV movie is likely what kept him working even when his theatrical features amounted to one money-loser after another.

Despite its Japanese title, Ronin returned Frankenheimer to France, where he’d made several previous movies including his last profitable picture, 1975’s French Connection II . The story takes place primarily in Paris with a side-trip to Nice. The heist thriller has a convoluted plot filled with twists and double-crosses, that’s nonetheless remarkably simple at its core: A team of highly-skilled mercenaries (Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, and Skipp Sudduth) are brought together by a mysterious woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) and hired to steal a briefcase. Deirdre will not tell them the contents of the briefcase or identify her employers. All the men need to know is that the MacGuffin inside the briefcase is important, and that attempts to steal it will face heavy resistance. Beyond that, each man has a specific skill-set and they will all be well compensated for their efforts. Naturally, their plans wind up complicated by betrayals both within the group and external. It wouldn’t be much of a thriller if everything went smoothly.

The movie’s script is credited to the names J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz, but “Weisz” is well known to be a pseudonym for David Mamet, who was brought in for a late rewrite to expand De Niro’s role. First-time screenwriter Zeik claimed that Mamet’s work amounted to a superficial touch-up on his story, but Frankenheimer contradicted this and gave all the credit to Mamet. Watching the film, Mamet’s imprint is obvious, especially in the character dialogue, which largely consists of terse and cryptic exchanges among professionals speaking an almost coded lexicon. Even if he didn’t actually rewrite the whole thing, Mamet snuck plenty of his distinctive voice and style into it.

The plot machinations are all logically constructed but ultimately don’t lead anywhere especially innovative or original. That may well be deliberate. The movie is clearly intended as a genre exercise with little pretense of depth beyond stringing together a series of shootouts and car chases. To that end, Frankenheimer stages a bunch of great ones. The car chases in particular are really thrilling, choreographed and shot in a very clear, no-bullshit style that forgoes editing tricks or visual effects (beyond some digitally-added smoke around squealing tires, which hasn’t aged well and frankly looked pretty bad even at the time) in favor of simply great stunt work. Ronin is one of the all-time great car chase movies, widely held in the same esteem as Bullit or The French Connection, and it delivers not just one great chase but several spaced throughout its length. For that reason if nothing else, it has held up as reliably repeatable entertainment for the last twenty years, and I had a lot of fun revisiting it on this watch.

The Blu-ray

For the Special Edition reissue, Arrow Video struck a new 4k master for Ronin, scanned from the original camera negative and supervised by director of photography Robert Fraisse. I sat down quite excited to watch it. For some reason, I had it in my head that MGM’s 2009 Blu-ray edition was a DNR smear-fest. Our reviewer David certainly didn’t think much of that disc at the time. Looking at it again for a comparison, however, I honestly don’t think it’s that bad. DNR doesn’t seem to be an issue so much as just a generally drab appearance with dull colors.

The Arrow remaster is better, to be sure, but it’s not dramatically better. In a lot of respects, the two discs look basically the same. The movie still has very muted colors and flat contrast, which I now have to assume were intentional. Fine detail in the new transfer is improved a modest amount, but I don’t feel that the old disc is unwatchable. Given the choice, I’d certainly go with Arrow, but I’m not sure how compelling an upgrade this is for someone who already owns the prior Blu-ray.

Ronin - Comparison 1 Arrow

Ronin - Comparison 1 MGM

In terms of audio, Ronin has a very energetic 5.1 mix that makes creative and effective use of the surround channels during the action scenes, placing viewers right in the center of the gunfights and car chases. I had a memory from the days of it being a DVD staple that the movie’s soundtrack was also very bassy, especially in the drumming musical score and the various crashes and explosions. That’s not really the case in Arrow’s DTS-HD Master Audio track, unfortunately. Some of the music throbs a little, but bass doesn’t extend especially deep. I found this disappointing. I put in a few scenes on the MGM Blu-ray for comparison, and that did seem to have a little more bass. However, I didn’t have a chance to compare the two discs extensively, and it’s possible I may have just been hearing a simple volume difference.

Ronin - Comparison 2 Arrow

Ronin - Comparison 2 MGM

One area where Arrow decidedly outshines MGM is the bonus features. The 2009 Blu-ray had only a trailer, dropping a host of supplements from the studio’s own 2006 Collector’s Edition DVD. Arrow restores most of those items, including an audio commentary by John Frankenheimer, an alternate ending, a half-dozen featurettes, and some cast interviews from the Venice Film Festival. Brand new is an interview with DP Robert Fraisse, and Arrow also dug up a 1994 “appreciation” for star Robert De Niro by his Jackie Brown director Quentin Tarantino.

Arrow also has better cover art.

Ronin Blu-ray - Buy on Amazon

Ronin Blu-ray – Buy on Amazon


  1. Lovely off the shelf review, Josh. I may need to pick this disc up in the current UK Arrow sale.

    ” (beyond some digitally-added smoke around squealing tires, which hasn’t aged well and frankly looked pretty bad even at the time)”

    ‘Franklyheimer CGI’, then? #crickets #tumbleweed

  2. Chris B

    I bought the old MGM disc a few years ago and still havent unwrapped it for a watch so It’s one I’m not in a huge rush to upgrade tbh. Great movie though.

    On a larger note, this is another review where you seem to not be all that impressed with Arrow’s A/V quality and don’t consider it much of an upgrade from previous releases. I’m not trying to be hostile just genuinely curious, what’s your opinion of Arrow Video in general? The get a ton of love from the cult film community and are praised as much as Criterion for their technical specs. Do you find the praise unwarranted? Are there any Arrow releases that you’ve been extremely impressed with?

    • Bolo

      I buy a lot of Arrow’s releases and find the AV quality pretty inconsistent. I’m glad somebody is putting these titles out on bluray, but I would consider comparing their AV quality to Criterion to be ridiculous. Criterion get far better results from similar films.

      Arrow get decent presentation out of films from North American and most of the stuff from Europe; but again, not as good as Criterion. I found this release of ‘Ronin’ to be quite good. Their Japanese titles never really have the best AV. Their box set of the ‘Female Convict Scorpion’ films gets a deservedly hard time because Arrow imposed a high contrast, giallo colour scheme on the film. Criterion have released Japanese films from the same era, directors, and studios to much better results.

      • Chris B

        I wouldn’t call them “inconsistent”, I only have about 20 of their releases but every single one has a PQ of good-to-great. A company like Kino is a lot more hit-and-miss imho. I just watched Arrow’s disc of Argento’s “Inferno” a few days ago and the movie looked incredible! I think the weakest I seen from them is Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy”, but those are low budget movies from the early 90’s so I think some of the flaws are endemic to the source material. Criterion has released a few blurays that have fallen short of expectations as well. Over-all I think they’re both great companies that occasionally stumble but who’s products are usually worth the money…

        • Bolo

          I agree that Arrow are far more consistent than Kino and that Criterion has its missteps. But I think Criterion usually delivers great presentation with the occasional job that is only good. But for me, the AV on Arrow’s Asian titles tend to be good-to-weak (often within the same movie) and rarely great. I guess if I compare Criterion’s releases of ‘Lady Snowblood’ and ‘Tokyo Drifter’ to Arrow’s releases of ‘Blind Woman’s Curse’ and ‘Battles Without Honour & Humanity’, Criterion is the clear winner.

          The stuff Arrow gets from America and Europe fares better. I haven’t seen their release of ‘Inferno’. I have the Blue Underground release of that one. But I do have their release of ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ and ‘What Have You Done To Solange?’. If I compare how those giallo films look compared to what Synapse puts out, I would say Synapse does a better job, too.

          That’s not to say Arrow’s releases are rubbish, they’re perfectly fine and I’m glad to have these titles. But I feel better work can be done based on Criterion and Synapse’s results. However, I also get that a lot of that depends on the title and source material.

  3. Josh Zyber

    The only Arrow disc I actually gave a negative review to was The Thing, and I got jumped-on by Arrow fanboys over that. This review is not negative, and I state right in it that it’s an improvement over the older Blu-ray. However, it’s not as big an improvement as I was expecting. This is probably a combination of two things: 1) The movie’s photography has an intentionally drab style, and 2) The old Blu-ray isn’t as bad as I remembered it being.

    I agree with a couple of the comments above that I generally find Arrow discs to be good-to-great in quality, and I believe they make a good-faith effort to do the best with all the titles they license. However, I think they may be a little overrated at times as well.

    • Chris B

      Yeah, I never said it was negative, I was just curious because most every other review I’ve read has claimed it to be a revelatory upgrade from the previous edition. The fact you were much less impressed sort of piqued my interest.

      I remember well the dust-up over The Thing and although I do disagree with you about the release, there was no need for everyone to get so up in arms about the whole thing. People take this stuff far too seriously sometimes. The Arrow fan-boy factor is real. Although Criterion has it’s own legion of consumers that praise the company endlessly and refuse to acknowledge even the most obvious missteps.

  4. Nick

    Look at Criterion reviews on

    Always 5/5 for everything. No matter what! Even when its blatantly not true…

    And I am sure Arrow has beaten Criterion a few times. Case in point? Mulholland Drive is slightly better.

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