Sony // 1994 // 133 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // February 14th, 2005
"Nothing's the same after you've killed someone. Your life is changed forever." -Léon
This is the third review this site has written for Léon: The Professional. This newest version finally has some special features, but it still isn't the DVD that fans of the film would love to have. Despite a few problems, it still represents a better value than any previous version of the film.
When an 12-year-old named Mathilda (Natalie Portman, Beautiful Girls) witnesses the murder of her family by a corrupt DEA officer (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element), she is reluctantly taken under the wing of a childlike but deadly hitman named Léon (Jean Reno, Ronin). They have a symbiotic relationship: she teaches him how to read, and he teaches her how to kill people. However, Mathilda's desire for revenge puts them in a lot of danger, and her strong affections for him could be even more dangerous for them both.
As the film has already been well handled in our reviews of the "International Version" of Leon: The Professional and Leon: The Professional: Superbit Edition, I will keep my discussion of the film to a minimum.
It's hard to imagine many films with this blend of grit and humor working at all. It's therefore no surprise that the studio was a bit squeamish about the relationship that develops (sort of) between Léon and Mathilda, but excising it really destroyed the film. This was just made worse when they marketed it as a straight action film. It wasn't until the International Version came out that audiences here in North America realized how impressive Léon: The Professional truly is.
The real reason that this film does genuinely work is in the great trio of performances at its core. Although the film is named after Léon, Mathilda is definitely the featured character. I'm not sure there has ever been a debut role quite like this, and Natalie Portman does a really incredible job with it. Her performance is completely believable and natural; she has both the youth and the maturity needed for the roll. Jean Reno is also very compelling as Léon. If he had taken any wrong steps in this performance, Léon would have become a very unsympathetic character. It is his innocence and childishness that make him the perfect counterpoint to Mathilda. The third standout performance is Gary Oldman as Stansfield, who injects a level of energy and insanity into the film that single-handedly drives the narrative forward. Most actors this far over the top just come off as silly, but Oldman somehow makes it work. Anyone else in any of these three roles would likely have totally botched up the film. These performances are bolstered by a solid and patient script, as well as some very cool cinematography. This is Besson's work at its best, and remains strongly recommended for anyone who can handle both the violence and the possibilities that Léon and Mathilda's relationship presents.
The disc itself is not nearly as impressive. Overall, the picture quality is good, but it isn't the reference quality track that's promised by the Superbit line. There is visible edge enhancement throughout, and the detail levels are inconsistent. Sometimes it looks fantastic, and other times it looks blurry, faded and grainy. There is a noticeable amount of dirt on the print as well, which should have been cleaned up better. The whole film does have a gritty, desaturated look, and I suppose that this kind of transfer would be a more serious problem on any of Besson's more vibrant films.
The Dolby track on the disc seemed clear and full, but I soon noticed that I wasn't getting any sound from the rear speakers. After testing more closely, I realized there was a little sound coming from the rears, but so little that I needed to get up and put my ears near the speakers to hear anything. Earlier versions of Léon on DVD had a similar problem, and it should have been fixed by now. The DTS track is another matter altogether. It is quite immersive, packing a solid punch in the low end and filling the room with sound in the action sequences. That will mean that the problem with the Dolby track won't be a problem for many people, but it's still very annoying. If you have a DTS decoder, it's definitely the right way to go.
The only extra on the first disc is a text trivia track that delivers information about the production, the city of New York, references made in the film and other seemingly unrelated information. Although a few of these are interesting, I can't imagine many people sitting through the whole thing. After all, it's quite distracting, and I'd really rather just focus on the movie.
The bulk of the extras are on the fourth disc. The first of these is a 10 year retrospective featuring interviews with members of the cast and crew (which, incidentally, has a higher average bitrate than the Superbit-enabled film). Despite all the efforts of the obnoxious narrator, there are a number of entertaining anecdotes, and it's well worth checking out. Notably absent is Luc Besson, but both Jean Reno and Natalie Portman appear, as well as a number of people from the production team.
The second featurette focuses on Jean Reno and his work creating the character of Léon. Jean Reno is one of the coolest actors in the world (in the same category as Sam Jackson and Chow Yun Fat), and it's nice to see him get a little bit of recognition. He talks at some length about his approach to the character as well. The other featurette focuses on Natalie Portman, which is more interesting. It really is bizarre for an 11-year-old girl to be in this kind of role, or in this kind of film at all. Her interviews are fascinating, and she recalls her experiences clearly and expresses them well.
These three featurettes hardly make this a fully stocked special edition. Yeah, it's better than nothing, but this film still deserves a lot more.
The special features on this version of Léon: The Professional aren't enough to make it a worthwhile upgrade from either of the previous versions of the International Version. If you have yet to pick up the film on DVD, though, this is the way to go. It's not too expensive, and it really is an awesome film.
Although Sony gets a big slap up the head for dropping the ball on this awesome film for a fourth time in a row, it still represents enough value to go free.
Review content copyright © 2005 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Ten-Year Retrospective
* Jean Reno: The Road to Léon
* Natalie Portman: Starting Young
* Fact Track