Our reviews of Leon: The Professional (Blu-Ray) (published November 30th, 2009), Leon: The Professional: Deluxe Edition (published February 14th, 2005), and Leon: The Professional: Superbit Edition (published September 29th, 2003) are also available.
"So, how old were you when you made your first hit?"
This is the story of a girl. Now that I've given the requisite Nine Stories joke, let's move on with the rest of the review. Contrary to what one might think, Léon isn't the story of Léon: The Professional (Jean Reno—Godzilla, Ronin, Mission: Impossible). Rather, it's the story of one little girl. Mathilda (Natalie Portman—Star Wars: Episode One, Mars Attacks!, Heat) is a typical twelve year old in your typical bad situation. Yet she shows heart and maturity beyond her years, growing up at a rapid pace amid the adverse circumstances. Adverse to what? To a Disney-esque existence where little girls where gingham print dresses, suck on lollypops, and their big decision of the day is where to draw the hopscotch board.
As has been mentioned often over the past year, Americans have funny ideas, societally, about what is and isn't "acceptable" when it comes to popular entertainment. To summarize briefly, Americans tend to think excessive and graphic violence and language are okay, but sex and skin aren't. Further, we're even more uptight when anything hinting of sexuality involves children in any way. No, this doesn't particularly make sense, but it remains a factor when considering how entertainment properties impact here.
Released simply as "The Professional," this uncut DVD version is billed by the full international title, Léon: The Professional. Twenty-four minutes of footage have been added back to the story. While I've not had the opportunity to enjoy the cut version yet (more on that during Rebuttal), it appears the lion's share of the restored footage concerns itself directly with the arc of Mathilda.
Poor Mathilda, she's not had what you would call a good life. Or rather, a nice, happy life. Her father's a cheating drug dealer, her mother a street level trashy type, and her big half-sister a complete bitch. There's abuse, both violent and verbal, emotional neglect, and a general lack of anything a twelve year old girl needs to grow up normal and sane. After her father crosses dirty cop Norman (Gary Oldman—The Fifth Element, Air Force One, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), the family is butchered with shotguns in their apartment while Mathilda's out on a browbeaten shopping trip for food. Showing maturity and wisdom beyond her years, not to mention poise and quick thinking, she manages to walk past the murders in the hallway and knock on Léon's door.
Léon is a cleaner, a hit man. He fixes problems, the kind of problems with people who need to no longer be part of the problem. Léon does one thing, and only one thing, but he does it very, very well. His life is the classic loner's, no ties, nobody, nothing to prevent him from, as Robert De Niro says in Heat, walking out on in 30 seconds flat if he spots the heat around the corner. He does one thing, however, which changes his straightforward life. He opens his door to Mathilda when she comes to it with her family lying in pools of blood behind her in the hall.
And so our story follows from there. Mathilda, she of the hard life, decides she wants to be like Léon. A hit man. She begs him to teach and indoctrinate her into the ways of what he does. At first, he's resistant. Mathilda wears him down, and so the story goes. Léon takes Mathilda on jobs, teaching her all the little and big things a hit man must know in order to survive successfully.
Most of the film is just violence, which Americans won't object to. The kicker in this uncut version is the nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon as the movie progresses, and also the nature of the Mathilda character. Natalie Portman was very young during this role, only thirteen herself. Yet the script called for her to use some rather severe language, and even smoke; surely guaranteed to get segments of the American audience up in arms. Other aspects of the story presumably restored in this version show a crush developing by Mathilda on Léon, which begins leading into areas of Lolita. However, to put some fears to rest right now, "nothing" ever happens, and no lines are ever crossed. They are, however, probably uncomfortably crowded for some viewer's tastes.
Director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc) is generally what I, as a current movie enthusiast, would call a favored director. He has a following, bigger than a cult director would have, but not as widespread as a James Cameron or Steven Spielberg. His films have shown a marked tendency to explore female leading characters dealing with unusual circumstances. With Mathilda, Besson takes a typical image of delicate innocence, and proceeds to modify it with very adult, very mature subject matter.
A young girl swearing, smoking, and working seriously with modern weaponry, these are images and topics that will get most people's attention simply for their striking contrast with the usual way of things. Besson does in Léon what he's done most of his cinematic career: use his central character as a study of contrasts, keeping the audience always a bit off-center, to tell a story. He does generally does it quite well, for the record, and Léon: The Professional is perhaps his best example of his style.
Columbia had, and has, the North American distribution for this film. Their effort on the disc, unfortunately, doesn't quite cover all the bases. First, the good parts. The video transfer is 2.35:1, and is anamorphic. As with most European films, the overall look seems a bit darker, less colorful, than a corresponding Hollywood film would be. This is not a good or bad thing, merely a difference. The transfer is clear and overall pretty good. There are a few isolated instances of moiré patterns here and there (check out the green striped shorts Portman is wearing the first time Mathilda meets Léon), but these are few and not really the fault of the transfer. The MPEG compression scheme still has problems with certain type of images.
The audio is top notch, really hands down a vibrant, full, and crisp auditory experience. Dialogue is perhaps just a touch too low here and there, but overall is always forward and discernable. Action sequences have explosive power, and use the low frequency quite well. Directional cues are sprinkled liberally throughout the soundfield, and give a good sense of space.
As for any additional material, there isn't much. There is an interesting showcase of the one-sheets (movie posters) for various of the country releases of Léon. It's quite intriguing to see what characters and aspects of the film are highlighted in each country; some showcase only Léon, others put Mathilda more prominently on the advertising. The disc also breaks out an isolated music score, which is a nice touch, and honestly should be pretty easy and inexpensive (both in fiscal outlay by the disc authors and in bit-budget on the disc) to accomplish for most any film with a good soundtrack.
The usual text screens offering biographical information on cast and crew, a full screen presentation of the theatrical trailer, that's about what you get in the way of extra material. Well, that and the additional 24 minutes, which are, honestly, a good extra to have.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can't help but feel Columbia really dropped the ball with Léon. First up, there's absolutely no reason the disc shouldn't use seamless branching to add the additional material back in. If this option had been taken, consumers could own both the American theatrical version, and the longer cut, on the same disc. I'm a prime example of a consumer who would benefit from this; as I've never seen the original American version. It would have been quite interesting to compare what was cut for release in the States, and consumers are incapable of marking the distinctions with this disc alone.
As always, a director's commentary would be nice, as would anything along the way of deleted scenes, outtakes, bloopers, documentary or behind-the-scenes footage…if any material such as this exists, or could be created, it would have increased the value of the disc. International versions of the trailers would have been especially interesting, for the same reason the gallery of international release one-sheets is interesting.
Separate audio tracks for foreign languages were dropped on this disc; the first release, of the American cut, contained French and Spanish soundtracks. Also, "production notes" promised on the case are missing, unless the perhaps half a page of text printed on the inside cover count in this regard.
While there are disappointing aspects to Léon: The Professional, ultimately the movie saves this disc. Solid transfers and a very enthralling cinematic experience create the value that gives consumers their money's worth here. Perhaps hope can still be held out for a future version which eventually touches all the bases not yet visited, but in the mean time, this isn't a bad effort compared to many other discs currently on the market.
Hats off to a great cast, especially a young Natalie Portman and the always good Jean Reno. Besson has his usual excellent touch with Léon, and overall the results are quite fantastic.
The court sternly chastises Columbia for missing a great opportunity with the disc. For shame.
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Scales of Justice
• Director's Commentary
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