Léon, The Professional

Léon, The Professional (1994)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Jean Rone, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello
Extras: Isolated Score, Ad Campaign Gallery, Production Notes, Trailers

Like "The Big Blue, " Luc Besson’s "Léon, The Professional" has been available here in the US in its American theatrical version only for the longest time, which was significantly cut as opposed to the Director’s original cut. This domestic version of the film has been available on DVD for quite some time, and now Columbia TriStar Home Video is finally releasing the Director’s Cut of this explosive and dark thriller on DVD. Featuring 24 minutes of previously cut footage, fans of Luc Besson’s thriller about professional hitmen finally makes the DVD appearance the film deserves. Raw, unflinching and absolutely uncut!

Léon (Jean Reno) is a hitman in New York. Cold, calculating and almost invisible in the crowd, he lives reclusively in his apartment in between jobs. One day his neighbor makes a bad mistake. He cheats drug dealers and stretches the cocain he sells, attracting their wrath. Within hours the neighbor and his family, including their four-year old son lie dead in a pool of blood in their own apartment. All the while Léon watches through his door spy. But the drug dealers overlooked Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the 12-year old daughter. When she arrives at the scene of the bloodbath from her grocery shopping spree, she immediately realizes the danger these men pose and casually walks by, ringing Léon’s doorbell instead. Reluctantly Léon lets her in and thus saves her life.

Driven by revenge and with nowhere else to go, Mathilda stays with Léon. But she doesn’t only want his protection. The girl asks Léon to turn her into a professional assassin herself so she can avenge the death of her innocent baby brother. Forming an alliance the two lead a live together and one day Mathilda finds out who the killers of her family were. Unable to stop her Léon is forced to watch as Mathilda walks right into the lion’s den.

The sight of a gun-toting child that is trained as a professional hitman is not exactly what most people would consider politically correct – in part a reason why so much of the movie had been cut for its domestic release. Once you get over this initial apprehension however you will soon notice that "Léon, The Professional" is an incredibly well-written and well-acted thriller. Jean Reno is the outsider; the hitman removed from society and his only family is the Mob. When he faces Mathilda, he is ultimately seeing himself. Helpless without support or relatives, Léon was literally adopted by the Mob and trained as a killer when he arrived in the US as a child. His inner struggle to prevent the inevitable and his friendship and fatherly affection for Mathilda make Léon an utterly captivating character that is brought to life perfectly by Reno.

Natalie Portman makes her movie debut in "Léon, The Professional" and you may have trouble spotting Star War’s Queen Amidala in this little girl. Despite her tender age, Portman gives a performance that shows quite well that there is a lot of talent slumbering in this innocent looking young girl. To play the bad guy, Gary Oldman steps in, and with his ferocity and ruthlessness you can’t but hate him. His utter disrespect for his job – and mankind for that matter – and the abuse of his position make him a lethal opponent that you won’t forget so soon.

With atmospheric images and great backdrops, Luc Besson manages to tackle the film’s subject sensitively and with respect, never glorifying any of the events, never excusing any of the actions. He never even focuses on them for the most part, always keeping the developing relationship between Léon and Mathilda in the center of the movie. He makes it clear from the beginning that we are watching bad people do bad things – and they pay for it. He also shows us how a young live can be corrupted so easily and at the same time inspires with his narrative flow and the film’s resolution. The differences between the domestic version of the movie and the Director’s Cut are manifold and work on many levels. Suffice it to say that the domestic version can not hold a candle to this original vision of the film in terms of its flow and drama, or the emotional impact.

Columbia TriStar Home Video is presenting "Léon, The Professional" in a <$PS,widescreen> transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television sets. Maintaining the movie’s original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio, the presentation fully restores the carefully composed images of the movie. The transfer is clean and without any speckles or blemishes. Highly detailed and without grain, the transfer is very stable and well defined at all times. Some edge-enhancement has been applied to the transfer, creating ringing artifacts on occasion, but for the most part, the presentation has a very natural look without ever appearing unnaturally sharpened. The movie’s colors are also reproduced nicely. From the lush green of Léon’s favorite plant, purple bruises on Mathilda’s face all the way to the fireballs during the explosive moments, the DVD always maintains a natural looking color balance and saturation. Flesh tones are absolutely faithfully rendered without ever appearing to rosy and the film’s blacks are deep and solid. The compression of the disc is good, although some slight <$pixelation,pixelation> is evident on occasion, especially during shots with a lot of movement. These compression artifacts are never distracting however and the overall presentation of the film is very pleasing.

The DVD contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track as well as a <$DS,Dolby Surround> track, both in English. While the Dolby Surround track is rather tight sounding and seems most appropriate for low volume listening, the <$5.1,5.1 mix> features a very expansive and aggressive sound stage. Making very good use of the surround channels, the audio has good dynamics and a natural frequency response. With a good bass extension, the track adds a lot of energy to the action moments of the movie and also lends some substantial depth to Eric Serra’s music score. The high ends are clear and create a lively experience with good clarity and spatial integration. Dialogues are well integrated and understandable at all times, never being drowned out by the energetic sound effects or the music.

The disc also contains Eric Serra’s thoughtful and dynamic music score on an isolated track. Presented as a <$5.1,5.1 mix>, it is a pleasure to get the chance to listen to the film’s music entirely unobstructed. Especially if you listen to it alongside the movie you will be impressed how well the music has been placed and how the themes perfectly work with the images on the screen. The only other extras on the disc is a gallery of advertising art, talent files and the movie’s trailer along with trailers for "The Big Blue" and "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc."

This is the version of "Léon, The Professional" you always wanted to see and it comes in a presentation you always wanted to see. The reasons why this film was originally cut appear even more dubious when you are familiar with this original version of the movie. The cuts have destroyed the movie’s integrity and original intentions to a large degree and while I agree that some of the movie’s content is questionable in terms, I do not think it excuses the cuts.
Fortunately here is the superior original version and Columbia TriStar Home Video has done a great job bringing it to life on this DVD. With a great transfer and a solid audio presentation this is the DVD version of the movie you have been waiting for!