Léon: The Director's Cut 25th Anniversary Edition Review
Luc Besson’s Léon is a solid action thriller that manages, at its core, to sensitively tackle a complicated and potentially troublesome platonic relationship dynamic. It’s also the film that launched the career of Natalie Portman and remains, to this day, one of her most impressive performances.
Portman plays Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl who returns home to find that her abusive father, uncaring mother and sister and her younger brother have all been murdered by Gary Oldman’s brutish corrupt police officer, Stansfield and his gang of thugs. With no family and nowhere left to go she finds herself befriending her hitman neighbour, Leon (Jean Reno), much to his initial reluctance.
Much of the film is dedicated to following Mathilda and Leon’s relationship - it’s very much a platonic love story - Leon becomes something of a father figure despite Mathilda’s infatuation and despite his concern begins to teach her his trade. What could become something of a rote revenge thriller benefits from a stronger, deeper emotional core.
Not only does Besson’s film juggle the relationship and Mathilda’s drive to avenge her family, it also features some of the best choreography and stunt work of any film before Park Chan-wook’s Korean watershed, Oldboy. The gunplay in particular is almost beautiful to watch thanks to Thierry Arbogast’s enthralling cinematography.
The new release of the film by Studiocanal features the director’s cut - restoring (not for the first time) many scenes centred around Leon and Mathilda’s burgeoning relationship. They were initially removed following early test screenings of the film but went on to be restored, initially in Japan before becoming more widely available in the US and UK. The difference between the two cuts is stark - the original theatrical release was almost troublingly violent with limited character development, the later, longer, cut is a far better film in terms of pacing and while it’s just as violent this is tempered by being part of a much deeper and considerate film.
There was much concern, even at the time of release, over the troubling aspects of the relationship between the two lead characters - Reno’s Leon being so much older than Portman’s Mathilda. These issues were exasperated partly due to the real life relationship between Besson and his wife at the time, Maïwenn Le Besco, who was just 16 when they married. Leon as a result can be an uncomfortable watch, especially in the longer director’s cut and there are lines that are certainly touched upon but never crossed.
Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Mathilda is nigh-on perfect. Despite it being her debut film she manages to be utterly convincing in the role. She brings both a vulnerability and a confidence that manage to carry her through a difficult part. Reno on the other hand is far more subdued - but no less impressive in his portrayal.
Léon in part came about thanks to Reno's performance in Besson's earlier film, Nikita, which saw him play a very similar character - Victor - in a much smaller role. His relative calm among the all of the violence in the film tips the balance away from it being too much and is desperately needed in the face of Gary Oldman’s show stopping portrayal of Stansfield. It’s a performance that edges into cartoon villain territory at times - but he’s truly scary.
Léon may have been surpassed in recent years in terms of gunplay and choreography but it remains one of Besson’s most engaging, if mildly troubling, films.
Studiocanal have pulled out all of the stops with a 4K remaster that presents the film in the best possible way. This review is based on the standard Blu-ray disc as 4K samples were not available - we've got a 4K edition on order though and will update with a full 4K review at a later date.
The remaster, while not fully appreciable on the standard 1080p HD release, retains the film grain that adds an atmosphere to the film while providing a sharpness that sets it apart from earlier editions of the film - including the Blu-ray release that was released back in 2009. Colour saturation and detail in darker scenes look spot on and the transfer doesn't suffer from the green tinge that affected one of the earlier DVD releases of the film.
The audio - provided via a vibrant DTS Master Audio 7.1 encode - is tight and while it doesn't make the most active use of your surround kit it provides a nice atmospheric experience. There's a surprising amount of bass and the dynamic range is solid. In all it's a pleasing experience befitting the film.
Given Léon is now approaching 25 years old, it has to be said that the extras provided on this edition are a little disappointing. For the most part they match the release that hit the market a decade ago - including a 'Ten Year Retrospective' that was at that time already half a decade old!
This lead feature included interviews with an impressive array of people involved in the film - producer Patrice Ledoux, Besson's then-girlfriend Maïwenn who it is though inspired the role of Mathilda, casting director Todd Thaler, director of photography Thierry Arbogast, costume designer Magali Guidasci, editor Sylvie Landra and actors Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Frank Senger, Michael Badalucco and Ellen Greene. But with a runtime of less than 30 minutes there's no attempt to look at the film in any real depth which is sorely disappointing.
Other features are also relatively disappointing and other than interviews with Jean Reno and Eric Serra were also present on earlier releases. These two interviews are mildly interesting but don't really offer any more insight than the feature above - Reno talks about the role, the character and Besson's direction of the film while Serra covers his relationship with the director and how they collaborated on the film.
Jean Reno: The Road to Léon and Natalie Portman: Starting Young are two features that run to around 12 minutes - the first charting Reno's career up until he took on the role, while the Portman piece attempts to do the same but given the actress' age and lack of catalogue up until that point it's very detail light.
- 4K Blu-ray