Sony // 1994 // 133 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 29th, 2003
Superbit, Schmuperbit. But still a darn good movie.
Smart, savvy, sexually charged, and jam-packed with guns, violent deaths, and a psychotic Gary Oldman, Léon: The Professional is as good as it gets. Both director and actors are in top form; the film is visually daring, high-action, and bloodthirsty; and the subject matter is deep enough and suggestive enough to have a lasting impact.
Despite being a re-hashed and re-packaged Superbit title, the DVD offers moderately reasonable improvements over its previously available brethren. It represents a great presentation of a fine film. But if you already own the previous release, like all Superbits, this DVD has nothing significant to offer you.
New York's top hitman is a man named Léon (Jean Reno). He drinks a lot of milk and kills a lot of people with an astonishing level of skill. He lives a monastic lifestyle, associates with no one, and has no personal relationships.
His next-door neighbors are a twelve-year old girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman) and her family. Her father, a drug pusher, starts to skim off the top of his designated supply. When Norman Stansfield, the owner of the drugs, shows up to deal with the situation, Mathilda witnesses her entire family get murdered in front of her eyes.
Having nowhere else to turn, she goes next door, and an incredibly reluctant Léon lets her in. Léon does not know why he lets her in, but he does. She wants revenge, and is willing to do whatever it takes to avenge the death of her baby brother. She is also intensely curious about Léon, and she soon figures out what he does for a living.
So, Léon begins teaching her how to "clean" -- that is, how to kill people, professionally, and he is the best teacher a young girl can have. Initially, she compensates him by doing chores, shopping for groceries, and such, but eventually, begins teaching him about life, teaching him social skills, teaching him how to interact with another person. The relationship is a symbiotic one -- both have an intense loneliness, and an intense, desperate need for human contact, and they find something inside one another that they can depend on.
That is, until, two things happen. First, they find out that Norman Stansfield is a police officer. Secondly, Mathilda starts falling in love...with Léon.
One problem Léon knows how to deal with. The other one -- he is in big, big trouble.
A rarity among good solid action thrillers, Léon: The Professional manages to say some profound things, if you can hear them over all the bullets and explosions. Sure, the film is about revenge and blowing stuff up, but also about loneliness and relationships. Léon and Mathilda are two opposite pieces of the same puzzle.
For all the naysayers, it is a strongly objective opinion to merely sell the film off as some sort of pedophilic nonsense -- especially since their relationship never actually becomes explicitly sexual (though it comes awfully, awfully close). More than anything, theirs is a platonic relationship in the pejorative sense -- a profound love based on a spiritual ideological connection made.
Léon can kill a man six ways from Sunday with his bare hands, and yet is absolutely terrified by a 12-year-old girl invading his apartment; likewise, Mathilda is physically weak and frightened and suffered the deaths of her entire family, but is emotionally dominant over the demure Léon, and can shove him around like nobody's business. These are incomplete people, and through harmonious relationships between love and revenge, life and death, they find a semblance of balance and happiness that eludes them individually -- not that these relationships are ever meant to end happily.
Not bad for an action movie, eh?
Léon: The Professional is a fantastic film, and represented breakout roles for the majority of its cast. Some went on to amazingly successful careers, and some of them made Just Visiting. The film was the start of good things for director Luc Besson and actor Jean Reno, both who went on to a string of successful films immediately following this movie in North America, and coincidentally, both managed to derail themselves quite thoroughly.
Certainly, La Femme Nikita made a dent in North America, but Léon blew the doors open for Luc Besson, securing him the funding to pursue his childhood fantasy film, The Fifth Element. But then, he dipped his pen in company ink, and married Milla Jovovich. Then, for some reason, he released The Messenger. Sadly, ever since, he has been sulking in France, producing and writing projects like mad, where it seems no matter what he puts his name on (Taxi 3, 'nuff said), the French will flock to see it in droves. A shame.
Jean Reno, likewise, made Just Visiting.
I repeat this, because it bears repeating (quote the raven, Lewis Black.)
Natalie Portman, in her breakthrough role, shows herself to be astonishingly capable actress at such a young age. She is perfectly cast, maintaining a moral-challenging balance between doe-eyed youthfulness and Lolita-esque sexual prowess. In fact, she is so good as Mathilda, that all painful memories of her wooden performances in the new Star Wars movies get totally erased from your mind.
Gary Oldman is well...Gary Oldman, and methinks he doth be cast exactly for that reason. In 1994, absolutely nobody could do a crazy villain like him, and his insanely drug-addled, intense, over-the-top performance in Léon: The Professional could have carry the entire film, if needed be. The fact that it never needed to be is a testament to the greatness of this film.
The absolute best thing this Superbit title has going for it is the presentation of the international uncut version of the film, as opposed to the 24 minute shorter cut previously released on DVD (under the simple moniker The Professional, sans first name). This is good. It should not be ignored, because with Superbit DVDs, everything is extraordinarily hit-or-miss. You know that somewhere, behind a closed door, executives were arguing about using the shorter version, so that the disc could have even more space on it, and then a Special Superbit version could be released down the ro...
Ugh. Even thinking like an executive gives me hemorrhaging in my body.
The international cut of the film expands upon the relationship of Léon and Mathilda in ways deemed too naughty for North American audiences, though rumor has it the footage was cut by Luc Besson himself, after observing the LA premiere of the film, after hearing numerous audience complaints that the film dragged on. Admittedly, some of the footage in question constitutes slower, tenderer moments, and the film does feel faster-paced without it. However, common sense suggests the scenes in question that the cuts made were made in response to their supercharged sexuality, not their dramatic pacing. North American audiences can handle dramatic pacing. They have a harder time with a 12-year-old girl coming into her sexuality, trying to seduce an older man while training to be a hitma...er, hitlady. While slightly more risqué and daring in its unedited form, without the footage, the film feels hollow and rushed. It suffers a loss of depth and feeling, and the edited footage is essential to the emotional impact of film as a whole. Thankfully, this Superbit version of the film does indeed preserves the original form, and it is a pleasing thing indeed to see the proper cut of the film represented properly.
Suffice it to say, the Superbit version of Léon: The Professional looks and sounds good. It looks and sounds incredibly good, in fact. Very, very good, even. I cannot conceive of the film ever looking better, in fact. Though, the comparison between the original version and the Superbit version, on my modest home setup, proved to be slightly moot.
You have to look really, really, really hard to see any major difference between the two transfers -- something I most certainly did. The Superbit transfer has improved levels of contrast; the film feels more vibrant, and less washed out in terms of colors. The clarity has increased, and even at high magnification, the film remains sharp and clear, with the Superbit version showing slight signs of anti-aliasing, whereas the original disc's image is softer and less jagged.
There are improvements, but the transfers are very similar. The same film defects appear in both discs, the same dust marks and tiny tears. Sure, the Superbit version does look nicer, but the problem is, the previous version of Léon: The Professional was pretty sharp looking to begin with. The differences are, shall we say, subtle.
Now, whether this improvement over say, a previous DVD release of the same film, is justifiable (or even noticeable for the average consumer) to re-sell basically the same product, is not a question that I want to touch with a 16-foot pole tied to an even longer pole. And the fact that Columbia seems insistent upon releasing seven versions of a movie and then topping it off with a Superbit release of the same film?
Let us say that I choose to leave understanding such motivations to people who drive fancier cars and wear nicer suits than I do (which is to say, a suit, period).
Let us also say that Léon: The Professional looks and sounds here as good or better than any other version of the same film on the market today, and leave it at that for now (order in the court, this is no time for rebuttals; at least, not yet).
The Superbit version of Léon: The Professional actually does one better in terms of audio quality with the inclusion of a DTS audio track, nonexistent on the regular versions. A common critique of Superbit titles in the past was the exclusion of DTS tracks completely, focusing instead on Dolby Digital tracks, so audiophiles should be pleased to see an actual honest-to-goodness improvement here on a Superbit title. Do I even need to tell you that it sounds fantastic? Because it does, rest assured. Sharp dialogue, sweeping sound mixes, oh my. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and the DTS sound virtually identical, and compared to the previous release, are slightly less tonal and bass-filled, but it feels more correct, less faux-dramatic, more professional and subtle a mixing.
Okay, now we can rebut the Superbit format until we are green in the face. Ready? Go!
Ah, Superbit! Nary a more controversial marketing ploy/format hath there ever been in the world of DVD. The few who swear by it argues that the increased bitrate provide optimal and pristine viewing quality on the DVD format. The rest of us say things like, "But this is the third version of this disc that Columbia has released -- why am I buying this again?"
Good question! Sure, it's a good looking disc, but many people -- say, me, for instance -- already own this DVD in its inferior, sucky, terrible, primitive, passé, bland, boring "regular" version (make the quotation mark movement with your fingers as you say it). And I have to point out the fact that the original version was already a fantastic looking disc, and a fantastic sounding disc.
So why would I buy this?
I compared the bitrates for both versions of the film, and yes, the Superbit version runs at a much higher rate -- whatever that means. But ironically, the other version runs at an incredibly high rate as well, and spends the majority in the film in the seven-to-eight megabit range, and rarely drops below six.
This means absolutely nothing to me. But it might to someone else.
Face facts: unless you actually live in a high-end electronic store, Superbit offers marginal improvements to the home viewing experience. I have seen Superbits on extraordinarily expensive digital equipment (think high six figures), and I can verify, with my own eyes, that boy howdy -- do they ever look good.
The punchline, of course, being that the owner of the extraordinarily expensive digital equipment had to actually show me where the improvements lay, in comparison to the original DVD versions.
Sure, I noticed the improvement when it was pointed out to me. Really, it was my fault -- I didn't have enough training, you see. Talk about embarrassing!
Also, for the majority of consumers, Superbits are just sort of stupid, in general. That counts as a rebuttal.
The muckraking and pooh-poohing of the Superbit format aside, as a release, this particular title is actually a good one. The tradeoff for cinephiles and audiophiles is rather painless; one gets an improved anamorphic video transfer and a new DTS audio track, in exchange for giving up an isolated music score, talent files and an international ad campaign (still poster shots from around the world).
This is not a bad trade, at all -- unless you are particularly married to the score itself; but then, you would probably just buy the soundtrack. Plus, if you needed more motivation, for some reason, the older version of Léon: The Professional is more expensive than the new Superbit release.
Sounds like a good deal to me. And Superbit or no, a deal's a deal!
But like all Superbits, there is nary a solid motivation to swap up; both discs look and sound fantastic, so you would be quite the sucker for buying this disc if you already owned the previous version.
Unless, of course, you are the guy who has the six-figure home theatre set-up. In that case, you won't break a sweat buying six or seven versions of the same exact movie.
A fabulous movie and a surprisingly decent Superbit release make for a pleasing offering, for a change. If you missed Léon: The Professional the first time around, this DVD version actually offers better value over the previous version, with improved video and audio for the loss of a few marginal features.
However, the court hereby orders anybody who trades their old version of Léon: The Professional in for this Superbit version to undergo psychiatric evaluation and enroll in "Gullible Marketing and Economics 101."
Review content copyright © 2003 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 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