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Léon: The Professional
Release Date(s)1994 (November 17, 2009)
Léon (Jean Reno) is a simple man. He doesn’t read or write. He’s got few possessions. His only vice is watching Gene Kelly and John Wayne movies. But there’s one thing he does better than anyone else: He’s a cleaner. As in hitman. When it comes to killing, he’s the best hands down. And it’s in this capacity that Léon works for Tony (Danny Aiello) in New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Tony is one of those guys in the neighborhood who gets things done, you know what I mean? You got a problem, you go to Tony. And when Tony’s got a problem, he goes to Léon. As it happens one day, after “cleaning” Tony’s latest problem, Léon meets 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman, in her first film appearance). She’s a latch-key kid, living with her white trash family in the apartment down the hall. He’s nice to her, and it makes an impression – nobody is ever nice to Mathilda. While she’s at the store one afternoon, her family is killed by a group of crooked D.E.A. agents led by the psychotic Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Mathilda returns while the agents are still there, quickly realizes what’s happening and pretends to be a neighbor, knocking terrified on Léon’s door instead. Against his better judgment, Léon opens the door to his apartment and, in that simple act, saves her life. But before long, he finds that he’s let her into his heart as well. What follows is an unlikely and touching Beauty and the Beast-style love story, albeit a somewhat innocent one. Léon quickly realizes that the one thing Mathilda wants more than anything else is revenge, so he does the only thing he can... he teaches her to clean.
Léon: The Professional is as close to perfect as any film I’ve ever seen. It’s a spin-off of sorts from director Luc Besson’s previous La Femme Nikita, based on Jean Reno’s character in that film (Victor the Cleaner). Léon plays right into Besson’s strengths as a director and visual stylist – each killing, each action scene unfolds like a poetic dance. It is easily his best film, and it’s the role Reno will always be remembered for. He brings tremendous depth to a character that we end up learning very little about. It’s his nuances as an actor that flesh Léon out – we learn everything we need to from Reno’s simple gestures and facial expressions. Meanwhile, Oldman plays on-edge maniacs better than anyone in the business, which is perfect because that’s exactly what the pill-popping, on-the-edge Stansfield is. And it’s hard to find words to describe Portman’s performance. She simply steals the show. As if to ice the cake, composer Eric Serra provides the perfect musical score to accompany the visuals. How good is Léon? Just watch the introduction of Stansfield and his men as they appear to do their dirty work, slinking through the frame accompanied by music you’d expect to hear in a jungle film when a tiger is stalking its prey. Brilliant.
Sony’s new HD presentation is definitely an improvement over the DVD transfer, though it’s not quite up to the level of the best catalog releases on Blu-ray. Colors are warm but accurate, contrast is excellent and there’s good fine detail visible – though the detail isn’t quite as refined as one might hope. This may be due to a little bit of filtering or DNR. It’s not a lot, but just enough to give the image a slightly digital appearance. The BD audio is also upgraded with this new DTS-HD lossless presentation, though the improvement is about on part with the video. The soundstage is a little too directional to sound completely natural, with only light surround play for atmosphere and the occasional shootout. But the front stage is nicely wide, clarity is refined and there’s plenty of bass.
Perhaps the best thing about Sony’s new Blu-ray release is that it includes both the U.S. theatrical and much-loved International versions of this film – you simply select which you wish to see when you start the film. That’s a huge improvement over all of Sony’s previous DVD versions right there. As for other content, the Blu-ray carries over the extended version trivia track from the previous DVD, and also includes the 3 video features from that edition (all in standard-def but anamorphic). These include a 25-minute retrospective on the production (featuring interviews with most of the cast and crew including Reno and Portman, although neither Besson or Oldman appear), a 12-minute biographical piece on Reno and a 14-minute piece on Portman (it’s less biographical in terms of her life, but she does talk quite a bit about how she got involved with this film). Unfortunately, the film’s trailer is missing per Sony’s BD usual, as are the international ad campaign gallery and isolated audio track (featuring Serra’s score) from the very first DVD release, so you’ll definitely want to keep that disc if you wish to retain them. Still, I have to give Sony a lot of credit for including both versions of the film – that’s a nice and very much appreciated touch.
I love those calm little moments before the storm... and I really love this film. If you haven’t seen Léon: The Professional yet, you don’t know what you’re missing. Sony’s new Blu-ray delivers nice upgraded A/V quality and, though it’s sadly still not comprehensive, it remains arguably the best special edition treatment the film has received on disc to date.
Film Rating (U.S./International): A/A+
- Bill Hunt