In 1994, Luc Besson had already made a name for himself as a filmmaker internationally through his work on the films La Femme Nikita and La Grand Bleu. If there was any mark against him, it was that his work was often criticized for being all gloss, no substance, and overly violent. Surely Nikita, or La Femme Nikita as it is known in the US, might easily fit that description. The world, then, was not quite prepared for what was still to come from the writer/director in the form of Léon (known in the US as The Professional).
Léon is French director Luc Besson’s, slickly stylized and controversial 1994 film about an Italian hitman or “cleaner,” Léon, who befriends a young 12-year-old girl, Mathilda (Natalie Portman) after her entire family is killed by crooked DEA agents. When he takes the girl into his apartment to save her from the men looking to kill her, the two quickly develop a bond and the young girl is drawn to the lonely hitman, asking him to train her as a cleaner.
As the two grow closer together, Mathilda professes her love for Léon, and begins to try to seduce him into taking her virginity and also tries to hire him to kill the men who killed her family. Natalie Portman, in her first starring role, displays a talent far beyond her years here and certainly hints at things to come (notwithstanding the Star Wars prequels). In fact, in the supplements on this disc, Portman explains how landing this role helped her to avoid the typical child star trap of doing kids movies, as she would from this point on be viewed as an “adult” leading actress. I would be remiss to not also point out Gary Oldman’s typically strong character performance as the corrupt and murderous, drug addicted DEA agent Stansfield.
What makes Besson’s film controversial, obviously, is the awkward, to many, sexual overtones of the relationship between the precocious young Mathilda and the unsuspecting Léon. Initially, the longer, so-called, “International Version” of the film, which contained some 33-minutes of additional scenes exploring the relationship between Mathilda and Léon was available only in Japan. Eventually, the extended edition was released to DVD and laserdisc, but, alas, only in Europe and Japan. Anyone who has seen the extended version of the film knows that it is superior to the gutted version that, for many years, was the only one made available to US consumers.
Altogether, this extended version of Léon not only makes for a great action film, but, even more, a wonderful character study and exploration of human sexuality, loneliness, friendship and love that crosses all boarders and boundaries. It’s not a film for prudes or the squeamish, but with that being said, its controversy has been far too played up. It’s a quiet film about two unusual people brought together by extraordinary circumstances and it is definitely some of the best of Besson’s work.
Sony has given Léon a brand new 4K digital restoration that looks beautiful. This is usually a great looking film, but in the past some have complained that the film has had issues with black crush and some excessive HDVNR that created some anomalies like disappearing objects (notice the telephone cord, in particular, on the UK edition as Natalie Portman speaks to her school headmistress). While the blacks here are still dark and prone to some very, very slight crushing, the detail is far more extended and nuanced than on previous editions, and the white levels also avoid clipping. Film grain is also exceptionally fine.
We get a Dolby Atmos (48kHz/24-bit) mix which plays in Dolby TrueHD 7.1 on my non-Atmos sound system. In 7.1, Léon sounds as great as it always has, perhaps even a little better now, and I will assume that those blessed with Atmos setups will get an even better treat with the overhead speakers and object-oriented mix in the finale when the bullets start to fly and the explosions fill the soundstage. Even in “just” 7.1 (my setup is actually 9.1 with two front height speakers) this finale and the scene where Oldman and his henchmen slaughter Natalie Portman’s family in their apartment, is an aural feast for the ears.
- Digital HD UltraViolet
- 10 Year Retrospective: Cast and Crew Look Back (1.78:1; SD; 00:25:10)
- Jean Reno: The Road to Léon (1.78:1; SD; 00:12:25)
- Natalie Portman: Starting Young (1.78:1; SD; 00:13:49)
- Fact Track (Extended Version)
- Theatrical Trailer (2.35:1; 1080p/24; 00:02:25)
The Definitive Word
Léon marked a stunning debut at the time for a young Natalie Portman, who showed talent beyond her 12-years, foreshadowing what a force she would prove to be in years to come. The film is stylish action in Besson’s signature style and this new 4K restoration (with Atmos sound mix) on Blu-ray will be a new reference, at least until native 4K Blu-ray hits an internet retailer near you.
Additional Screen Captures