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review added: 8/16/00



Léon: The Professional
International Version - 1994 (2000) - Gaumont/Columbia (Columbia TriStar)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Léon: The Professional Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/D

Specs and Features
133 mins, UR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:13:19 in chapter 20), Amaray keep case packaging, 3 theatrical trailers (Léon, The Big Blue and The Messenger), isolated score, talent files, international art gallery, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish & Portuguese, Closed Captioned


Léon is a simple man. He doesn't read and he doesn't write. He's got few possessions other than a potted plant and a pair of briefcases full of his tools. He doesn't smoke and he doesn't drink... unless you count a glass of milk every day. 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 assassin. Hitman. When it comes to killing, nobody does it better. Léon (a perfectly cast Jean Reno) works for Tony (Danny Aiello) in New York's Little Italy. 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 things get ugly, Tony goes to Léon.

One day, after delivering a "serious" message to a would be crimelord, Léon returns home and meets 12-year-old Mathilda (the amazing 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 from Léon. He's nice to her, and it makes an impression - nobody is ever nice to Mathilda. The next day, she offers to run to the store for him to buy his usual two quarts of milk. While she's gone, her family is killed by a group of crooked DEA agents, led by the psychotic Stansfield (Gary Oldman). It seems her father held coke (and I don't mean the capital "C" variety) for Stansfield, but he's been cutting into the stash for himself. Mathilda walks right into the middle of the aftermath, quickly realizes what's happening and pretends to be a neighbor, knocking terrified on Léon's door instead. Saving Mathilda goes against every shred of better judgement he has, but one of his first rules of killing is "No women, no children," so he can't just let her die. Léon does indeed open the door to his apartment to save her. And before long, he finds that she's opened the door to his heart as well. What follows is an unlikely and touchingBeauty and the Beast-style love story, albeit an innocent one. For while Léon grows to love Mathilda, he doesn't LOVE her - he's not that kind of guy. But the one thing Mathilda wants more than anything else is revenge, so Léon does the only thing he can... he teaches her to clean.

For what it is and what it sets out to be, Léon: The Professional is as close to perfect as any film I've ever seen. It is easily director Luc Besson's best film, and it's the role Jean Reno will always be remembered in. The film plays right into Besson's strength's as a director and visual stylist - each killing, each action scene unfolds like a poetic dance. The film's casting is simply outstanding. Reno is amazing as Léon, bringing tremendous depth to a character that you 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. Gary Oldman plays a fucking nut 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. I'll let you see for yourself. Once again, composer Eric Serra provides the perfect musical score to accompany the visuals. How good is this movie? Just watch the first scene in chapter 5, as Stansfield's men arrive to do their dirty work, slinking through the frame accompanied by music you'd expect to hear in a jungle film when the tiger's stalking its prey. Amazing.

The Professional has been available on DVD for some time from Columbia TriStar, but for the first time here we're treated to the 24-minute longer, international cut of the film (aka Léon: The Professional). If I loved this film before, I love the longer cut even more. The extra footage includes more character development for Léon (we find out WHY he's a cleaner), much more of Mathilda's training and more of their developing relationship. Sadly, as with The Big Blue, Besson declined to make special edition materials available to Columbia TriStar for inclusion on this disc. But the film is presented in full anamorphic widescreen, sporting a new digital, high-def transfer. The print is of significantly better quality than was used for The Big Blue, resulting in better looking video. It isn't quite reference quality, but the color and contrast are very good overall. There's good detail and shadow delineation and very little artifacting. I'm very happy with this picture.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is good, but it's a different sounding mix that what was released on the earlier DVD version of The Professional. Most of this film is driven by dialogue, which is clear and clean here. But when the guns start blazing, you'll hear every shot rip through the air accompanied by hammering bass. The soundstage is nicely wide. The play in the rear speakers is subtle here but it's there, and I actually like it - this is a very atmospheric mix. Here's where it differs from the earlier DVD release, however - the rear channels were much more active on that disc than they are here. My understanding is that the audio source material was different for these two versions of the film, and so it's not a technical problem. I suspect whether you like it or not will be a personal preference. In any case, as with The Big Blue, Serra's score is well presented in the mix, and is also available isolated from the rest of the film audio. An English 2.0 track is also included.

Serra's score is about the only really substantial extra here, although you do get trailers for this film, The Big Blue and The Messenger, a small talent file section (with "selected" filmographies) and a gallery of 11 stills featuring international poster artwork. The menus are animated with music, but the "explosion" wipes are a little much. Would I have liked a commentary? Sure. Interviews with Reno, Oldman and Portman? Sure. But they're not here and I'm not going to waste my energy complaining about that. Columbia did the best they could in a difficult situation and the film more than makes up for it.

I just love these calm little moments before the storm. And I really love this film. Léon is absolutely the better version of The Professional, and if you haven't seen it, you don't know what you're missing. Even if you already have the earlier disc - especially if you already have the earlier disc - you MUST buy Léon. I think you'll really appreciate the difference.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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