Leon: The Professional (1994)
By: Julian on August 24, 2010  | 
DVD
Madman | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 127 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Country: France
External Links
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One of the greatest action films of the nineties, Leon: The Professional makes its Region 4 debut (notwithstanding a few unofficial DVDs) as part of Madman Directors Suite. Happily, the superior director's cut is the one on show here, as well as a satisfactory host of extra features.

Our titular hero is an Italian hitman Leon (Jean Reno), who lives in a decrepit apartment complex and works for shady mobster Tony (Danny Aiello). One of Leon's neighbours is twelve-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who lives with her parents and two siblings. After corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) pays the family a visit to check up on a swag of heroin he has left Mathilda's father for safekeeping, he is a touch perturbed: ten percent has been skimmed, and Stansfield wants answers. He returns the next day and butchers the entire family – except Mathilda, who was out at the shops and returns to hear her four-year-old brother meet the same grisly end as her mother, father and teenage sister. Leon brings Mathilda into his home and, after the girl takes a cursory glance at Leon's suitcase filled with guns, she is desperate to learn his methods and avenge the death of her family. Leon is initially reluctant, but after conceding that Mathilda is with him to stay, he teaches her how to 'clean', and she lurches towards Stansfield in the process.

Luc Besson's output has generally been strong, but Leon: The Professional is his masterpiece. Two hyper-kinetic action sequences bookend a character driven exercise in drama, consummately performed by Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in her first role (and I can't imagine I'm the only one to have identified parallels between Mathilda's bob haircut and gun-toting sensibilities and Hit Girl of Kick-Ass fame). Oldman and Aiello in their supporting roles round out the formidable ensemble: the latter appears for a total of about 10 minutes but he exudes sleazy criminality, and Oldman as the pill-popping nutbag will never be in a better movie.

We're treated to career-best efforts by the three key performers Reno, Portman and Oldman, and I think few would dispute that Leon is a career-best effort for Besson. His direction is pitch perfect, and the Parisian master proves he is just as comfortable directing scenes of highly charged drama as he is scenes of highly charged action. Leon doesn't falter for a second of its relatively considerable duration, a testament to Besson's command of the screen and his violently disturbing yet nuanced screenplay. The uneasiness in the sequences in which Leon and Mathilda are trying to relate to one another, particularly when the two make an awkward attempt at playing charades, doesn't threaten to sway the film's inexorable momentum; Besson takes a gamble with these sequences, and they don't come off as sappy. It's an affirmation of Reno and Portman's talent, as well as Besson's.

A brief note on the 'director's cut': if you've been watching the theatrical cut, which is shorn of about twenty minutes, then you haven't seen Leon. This is one of those films that benefits tremendously from the added footage. Aside from more violence (Leon and Mathilda 'cleaning' the drug dealer isn't present in the shorter version), we're privy to a really significant amount of character development in Leon's extended incarnation. None of it was responded to well by LA test audiences, and the footage sadly failed to end up in the theatrical cut. According to Besson himself (and who better an authority?), calling this version the 'director's cut' is a misnomer: he prefers to identify this as the 'long version' (or, to translate its French subtitle directly, the 'Integral Version'), and the 110 minute version as the 'director's cut'. A sure-fire recipe for confusion.

Besson has stated that Leon was inspired by Victor, Reno's character in Besson's 1990 film La Femme Nikita; specifically, the director describes Leon as "Victor's American cousin". However, Leon stands alone and tall as a genre highlight. A remarkably acted and directed piece of work, Leon is absolutely essential viewing.
Video
Leon: The Professional is presented in 2.35:1, with anamorphic enhancement. The transfer is sharp and generally clean, although fine grain does occasionally reflect its gritty low budget origins.

The DP on duty is Thierry Arbogast, who lensed Nikita as well as a handful of other particularly well shot films, including Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale and Mathieu Kassovitz's The Crimson Rivers. Arbogast does a very delicate job, perfectly appropriate with the mostly restrained setting and balletic violence on display.
Audio
Two English Dolby tracks in 5.1 and 2.0, and they're as crisp as you'd want. English subtitles are provided, with the slightly odd option of selecting them coloured in either yellow or white.
Extra Features
Madman has assembled a top set of features for this disc. Leon: 10 Year Retrospective is the centrepiece, a 25-minute featurette wherein the cast and crew reminisce. The retrospective includes Reno, Portman, Arbogast and producer Patrice Ledoux, among others – but no Besson. Jean Reno: The Road to Leon and Natalie Portman: Starting Young are two decent actor-specific featurettes, running 12 and 14-minutes respectively. A theatrical trailer – as well as trailers for other Director's Suite releases including Besson's recently released La Femme Nikita – round the package out.

A German release of Leon is identical, but includes a few poster galleries, and the Japanese release offers a DTS track and both the theatrical and director's cuts, with the longer cut halved and spread over two discs. The theatrical cut is rendered redundant by the longer cut, though, and on balance, the Madman disc seems to be the best deal for Region 4 consumers. It's nice to finally see a local distributor give this film the release it deserves.
The Verdict
Leon: The Professional is all class – a supercharged, incredibly intelligent and brilliantly entertaining piece of work by a master filmmaker.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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