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Ronin Rides a Roller Coaster

Frankenheimer Still Knows Action Genre...

by Jim Bray

With Ronin, legendary director John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix, The Manchurian Candidate) has put his considerable talents into a post-Cold War tale of espionage and intrigue that's in the grand tradition of the genre. 

The film focuses on a group of mercenaries and ex-spies brought together by a mysterious Irish woman named Dierdre, ostensibly to recover a metallic case and its unknown contents. Naturally, that's only the tip of the iceberg, and from that rather formulaic beginning Ronin takes the viewer on a high speed, high tech chase across France in which you never really know who, if anyone, is a good guy - let alone what the heck is really going on - until the carefully-timed placement of the knowledge squarely under your nose.

Not that the movie is muddled; far from it. It's deliberately unhelpful, unfolding at its own pace, and that helps build the excitement. It's worth the wait, too; along the way, you learn more than you might expect about these people, their motivations, and who in fact they really are and for whom they're working.

The cast is led by Robert De Niro, who plays Sam - who may be an ex-CIA agent but who's now working for the highest bidder. He's joined by Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Skipp Sudduth, and Sean Bean as the team members. Bean's presence, along with those of Jonathan Pryce and Michael Lonsdale, could make the cast seem almost like "return of the ex-James Bond villains," but all three actors have what can best be described as supporting, almost cameo roles - which shows the high powered quality of Ronin's outstanding cast.

I won't spoil things by telling anything more about the plot - except to mention that Frankenheimer has staged a couple of the best car chases in recent years and they'll keep you pumped.

Speaking of Frankenheimer, he has done an excellent job of staging the action and violence without going overboard with the gore. Sure, there's shooting and killing, but it's handled more in the tradition of directors like, well, John Frankenheimer rather than Paul Verhoeven. In all, Ronin is an engrossing yarn.

As a DVD, Ronin pushes the current envelope, not so much for its disc technology but for its extras. The disc arrived with an invitation to participate in a special live Internet event on the making of the film, hosted by John Frankenheimer himself! This was a terrific teaser for me personally, because I once worked for the director on his film "The Fourth War" (I played a shrubbery). Unfortunately, I was called out of town on the date prescribed, so couldn't take advantage of the live event. However, MGM/UA posted transcript so those who bought the disc later, or couldn't participate, can still catch up.

The online part is only available to consumers with DVD-ROM drives, unfortunately, and requires installing PCFriendly's software onto your hard drive (as if we need another Web Browser!) and you need the DVD in the drive for it to work.

While this is terrific if you have a DVD-ROM drive, it leaves out consumers with home theatre DVD players and this is a shame. After all, they still shelled out the bucks for the disc, so why shouldn't they be allowed the bonus, too - especially since it's a particularly interesting one. Perhaps future such MGM outings could merely include a key code or password with the disc so all disc owners with Internet access can participate.

Still, it's a great idea and, as one who always looks for interesting extras with each DVD release, I can't help but applaud the direction in which this is headed.

And, to be fair, you do get a feature length running commentary on the film by John Frankenheimer - and the transcript of the online chat session is available at MGM's web site as well. It's a must read for film and Frankenheimer fans.

Another neat extra is an alternate ending to the movie (the original ending, in fact), so you can second guess the director as to which version is best. And, in a nice move that counters a recent trend toward sparse documentation, the disc's liner notes are generous and include behind-the-scenes info as well as the usual chapter listings, cast list etc.

Picture and Dolby Digital sound quality are superb, as expected with DVD, and the French soundtrack is also recorded in Dolby Digital.

I also have to give MGM/UA full marks for including both widescreen (2:35:1) and pan-and-scan versions on opposite sides of the disc. As with other dual format discs, however, the labelling around the spindle is incredibly tiny; however, MGM/UA has marked the widescreen version with a red tag, while a blue one graces the full screen version. My tired old eyes watered in thanks!

Ronin, the DVD, is not only a ripping good yarn, then, it's a lovely example of DVD and its potential.

Ronin, from MGM/UA Home Video
Starring Robert De Niro
Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by Zeik and Richard Weisz
Produced by Frank Mancuso, Jr.
Directed by John Frankenheimer

Mercury RisingMercury Rising an Unexpected Pleasure

Willis, Baldwin vehicle a gem

Imagine Films' Mercury Rising, at first glance, looks like your typical action spy thriller, with nothing out of the ordinary to recommend it. Don't let that fool you, though; it's a movie that draws you into it, and makes you really care for the protagonists.

"Rising" is really about a nine year old autistic named Simon, who just happens to be able to read the US government's ultimate "super code." This makes him a security risk that must be eliminated, and the government will stop at nothing to see that it happens. They kill his parents almost before his eyes and only Simon's secret hiding place saves him. Simon needs a "big brother" if he's to survive, someone with a charitable nature who's willing to put his life and career on the line to do what's right.

Sounds like a Bruce Willis character, doesn't it? And, of course, it is. Willis plays Art Jeffries, FBI agent on the skids who virtually stumbles onto the scene and then rises to the occasion in a manner that makes you proud. Along the way he come across others like himself, "little people" who care - as well as "big people" you want to hate because of their ruthlessness, but who aren't really villains despite everything they do.

That's where Alec Baldwin comes in. His is really only a supporting role, that of Nick Kudrow the head "baddie." Baldwin sees on the "big picture" of national security and how many lives the breaking of the Mercury code endangers. To him and his minions, the deaths of a few "little people" are warranted to ensure the safety and security of US agents and interests worldwide.

Mercury Rising has the action and intrigue you'd expect, but it isn't just a shoot-em-up. It's an intelligent movie and an engrossing yarn with a typically mysterious-sounding John Barry musical score and, despite not really wanting to see it, we're glad we did.

The DVD is only offered in widescreen, and comes with Dolby Digital audio on the English soundtrack. Spanish and French audio are traditional Dolby Pro-Logic surround. Picture and sound (the English, at least) are excellent, as one would expect.

You don't get a lot of extras with Mercury Rising. The liner notes are basically non-existent beyond the outside case and a chapter listing. There are some production notes, cast/filmmakers' bios, and the theatrical trailer. The box says there's a section of film highlights as well, but we certainly couldn't find them beyond the chapter selection list.

Still, even with its chintzy DVD extras, we highly recommend Mercury Rising as a movie.

Mercury Rising, from Imagine Entertainment and Universal Home Video
Starring Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin
Written by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal
Produced by Brian Grazer and Karen Kehela
Directed by Harold Becker


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Updated May 13, 2006