Sony // 1994 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 30th, 2009
If you want a job done well, hire a professional.
"I don't give a #$%@ about sleeping, Léon. I want love, or death. That's it."
Léon (Jean Reno, Couples Retreat) is a professional "cleaner." No, he doesn't tidy up people's homes. He's a killer for hire; taking his orders from a local restaurant owner named Tony (Danny Aiello, Do the Right Thing). One day, a corrupt DEA Agent named Stansfield (Gary Oldman, Air Force One) brutally murders an entire family living in Leon's apartment building. Leon chooses not to get involved. He's a professional, and he doesn't get involved with problems that don't concern him. But then someone knocks on his door.
It's a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman, Closer), the only surviving member of the family that was attacked. She wasn't intentionally spared; she just so happened to be shopping when the hit went down. Mathilda doesn't know anything about Léon's profession, she just knows he's a reasonably nice neighbor who might help her out. Ever so reluctantly, Léon takes the girl in and gives her shelter. When Mathilda finds out what Léon does for a living, her eyes light up. She's found her salvation. She will have her revenge.
There are two versions of Léon: The Professional included on this disc: the original American version and the longer extended version (also known as the "International Cut"). It's important to note this, because they're really two different films. The American version of Léon is essentially a straightforward revenge story about a professional hitman helping a little girl take down the bad guy that killed her family (her little brother specifically, Mathilda doesn't really care about the rest of her family passing on). The international version of the film is a good deal more subversive. It's a film about a professional hitman helping a little girl who (A) desperately wants to sleep with him and (B) is disturbingly bloodthirsty and cold-hearted towards humanity in general, not just the man who killed her family. The latter is a far more interesting, unnerving, and ultimately moving film, but I can understand why some might not like it. The American version of the film is just close enough to a standard revenge-fueled action movie that it's easy to see why it was so embraced by the mainstream. I can easily imagine the extended version making genre fans looking for an adrenaline rush feel very uneasy.
Naturally, there are numerous qualities that both versions share in common:
Great action scenes: Besson is most assuredly a director who knows how to generate some onscreen excitement, and he certainly brings the thrills to the party. From the cool-as-a-cucumber opening string of hits to Gary Oldman's savagely violent initial attack to Léon's tension-filled training sessions to the explosive finale, the action sequences really pack a punch. They're very memorable, perhaps partially because the movie does a nice job of measuring them out in moderation. Léon stands in contrast to many of the non-stop action flicks of the '90s (and this decade, for that matter), choosing to emphasize character development and story over action. However, when the action arrives, it works like gangbusters.
A unique lead character: Léon is by no means a standard movie action hero. He may be the strong, silent type, but he's also the shy, socially awkward type. He's much easier to accept as an action hero, because he seems to be a real human being who has plenty of weaknesses in other areas. No, not superficial movie weaknesses ("My marriage failed because I was spending so much time being awesome and saving the world,") but genuine ones. Consider his exchange with a hotel clerk, in which he is incapable of improvising even the simplest of stories (thankfully Mathilda is onhand to help him out). He can't read, he isn't able to pick up on many pop culture references, and he drinks milk so frequently and obsessively that one might think he's attempting to recapture some lost childhood. His one strength is an unfaltering ability to kill people in creative ways, but his incompetence and awkwardness in other areas is what makes us feel for him.
Gary Oldman: On paper, Stansfield is honestly not the best role in the world. The villain doesn't get quite as many scenes as the average movie villain and his actions are severely lacking in credibility at times. However, Gary Oldman grabbed the part and injected it with violent life, creating perhaps the most madly entertaining over-the-top villain of his career (and that includes True Romance). The actor makes Stansfield an absolutely mad and unpredictable character. Watch him go into a weird spasm as he takes a pill. Watch him walk up to a man who owes him money and sniff the man like a bloodhound. Watch him air conduct a Beethoven symphony as he murders a family. Oldman makes almost everything regarding his character work. Consider the moment when he's being interrogated by two government officials. There is no way on earth he should be able to get out of that conversation without answering some questions. However, if you were interviewing Gary Oldman and he roared, "I don't have time for this Mickey Mouse bull*#&$!" at you in the way that he does in this film, you might just let him go, too.
However, the performance of Natalie Portman doesn't reveal its true brilliance unless you watch the extended version. What a powerful and nuanced turn this is, perhaps more impressive than most of what Portman has done since. This is a girl grappling with a combination of heartbreak, bitterness, incredibly poor upbringing and raging hormones. She attempts to mask it all with a cool veneer of calm, and at times she's so cold that you wonder if it isn't too late for her to find redemption. However, a broken little girl still exists beneath the facade, making her attempts to seduce Léon (don't worry, certain scenes may get creepy but Léon always takes the high road) all the more heartbreaking. Some have accused the role of exploitation, as watching a little girl smoking, drinking, swearing and attempting to seduce an older man is an easy way to put a knot into someone's stomach (or in some particularly sinister instances, turn someone on). That's a valid argument, but Portman's turn feels so truthful and honest that I feel it earns the right to exist. Alas, apparently American test screening audiences just couldn't take it.
The film receives a particularly strong Blu-ray transfer, which is quite pleasing considering that Léon is a visually rich experience. I half-expected the film to be dumped onto hi-def in the sort of lazy manner that many catalogue titles have received, but Léon actually looks quite strong. Detail is genuinely exceptional, making Léon's run-down New York neighborhood feel particularly immersive. The color palette is warm and inviting, filled with lush tones that play nicely against the gritty setting. There are a few moments that seem a tad soft, but they're hardly bothersome. A level of natural grain is left intact, which is pleasant and never distracting. The audio is very strong during the action sequences, and it's generally clean and clear (though a few of Reno's lines seem a little muddled). However, I will say that I find some passages of Eric Serra's score to be genuinely wretched (though the more sentimental sections tend to work). If there's one huge mistake the soundtrack makes, it's not including any actual Beethoven during Stansfield's memorable massacre.
Disappointingly, the extras are all ported over the the special edition DVD released a few years ago. You get the 25-minute "10 Year Retrospective: Cast and Crew Look Back," featurette, the "Jean Reno: The Road to Léon" (12 minutes) spotlight on the French actor, and the 14-minute "Natalie Portman: Starting Young" featurette. There's also a pop-up "fact track" that can be viewed with the extended version of the film, and the disc is equipped with BD-Live.
There are several plot absurdities in Léon: The Professional that are pretty hard to overlook. First of all, how on earth does Stansfield get away with the shenanigans he pulls in this film? I don't care if he's bought off the entire NYPD, there's no way that his actions could be done in broad daylight without any consequences. Also, why is there a scene where Léon holds a gun to Mathilda's head when he has firmly asserted that he has a rule about never killing women or children? How on earth is it possible for Mathilda to hit someone very far away with sniper-like accuracy using paint balls? These nagging issues are relatively small, but they do tend to undermine the film's credibility at times.
Léon: The Professional remains one of Besson's strongest films; both a thrilling action movie and a nuanced character study. The Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent, though the lack of new supplements is a disappointment. Worth an upgrade, but maybe consider waiting until it goes on sale.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track