Most of the review below was written for The DVD Forums Top 100 Films 2007 article we ran in 2008, all I’ve done is append a couple of paragraphs at the end to discuss Léon’s place within Besson’s filmography.
After hitting it big internationally with Nikita, Luc Besson decided to return to the world of professional killers for his first film that was set in the United States: Léon. Léon’s reclusive life as the top hitman for a local mob boss is turned upside down when his neighbour’s young daughter: Mathilda knocks on his door after the brutal murder of her family by Stansfield, the head of a corrupt police ring. Taking in Mathilda, Léon finds his life upturned by the increasingly assertive, pubescent girl and it’s not long before he’s persuaded to teach her the arts of his profession – which will soon bring them both into the path of Stansfield and his goons once again.
Besson’s gift as a maker of action thrillers is his ability to create fresh idiosyncratic characters and develop them through inventive character arcs. In Nikita he gave us a criminal junkie who is trained to become a governmental assassin. In Léon he gives us a fidgety, milk guzzling, Italian plant lover who conducts his business in an overcoat, round shades and a small wooly hat. In Mathilda we have a beaten, precocious child/wannabe seductress, and the villainous Stansfield is an extremely entertaining pill-popping psychotic with a penchant for classical music. On characterisation alone, Léon is a very engaging film – more so than your average action flick – but it is with the longer “Version Integralé” edit, which expands the relationship between Léon and Mathilda by developing their bond through a series of both awkward and pitch-black scenarios that the film really becomes something special.
Léon is probably the culmination of Luc Besson’s work as a filmmaker, it takes all his previous themes about isolation and awkward relationships and manages to portray them humanistically within the context of a violent action thriller. In Léon we have a similar soul to the unnamed protagonist of The Last Battle - someone who is completely alone and stuck in a monotonous routine - but also someone like Fred and Jacques in Subway and The Big Blue who is scarred by a tragedy in his childhood that has stunted his growth emotionally. Unlike these characters Léon’s not looking to express himself or become untethered from the world around him, instead he succeeds in committing to a real human relationship and grabbing a chance at redemption through his friendship with Mathilda. This makes Léon a far more empathetic character than any of Besson’s previous protagonists.
Mathilda represents the wild and impulsive outsider we see in Fred and Nikita, but when placed in the context of an abused child the emotional naiveté and reckless rebellion seems far more fitting. Also by developing his first truly antagonistic villain since The Last Battle with the character of Stansfield, and ramping up the action quota beyond that of Nikita, Besson finally resolved the narrative issues that plagued his previous work. The director is not the only one on top form either, Eric Serra’s score goes beyond the mood pieces he’d mostly created in his previous collaborations with Besson, and now seems to be channelling the soul and intense loneliness of the central character, creating a beautifully evocative accompaniment to the film.
The Disc: The French and German Blu-ray releases of Léon warned us that the hi-def masters that are currently being used for this film leave a lot to be desired, and sure enough this release from Optimum bears all the hallmarks of an early high definition master: The transfer is rife with edge enhancements and the contrast and brightness levels have been completely blown out, giving the image a stark look that I find rather harsh on the eyes and not remotely appealing at all. The whole look of the film is white hot, any texture or material that can reflect any light at all is in danger of blooming like hell from one scene to the next, and people tend to look like they’re standing directly under a spotlight. Aside from the obvious loss of detail we get from such heavy handed clipping (the greyscale has been totally destroyed) the brightness-boosted colours never seem completely perfect either, resulting in a transfer that feels just a tiny bit poorly saturated, with skintones appearing slightly pallid. Don’t get me wrong, in general the colour scheme is appealing enough and a noticeable improvement over the DVD releases, but at the same time the palette seems slightly restricted compared to subtle gradation of colours you usually find in High-Definition.
Elsewhere the image is a little more successful, detail isn’t fantastic but it is at least an improvement over standard definition, and naturally black levels are resoundingly deep and only falter in a few shots. Grain varies from a light and fuzzy layer throughout most the film to a deeper and sharper texture in scenes with low lighting – in particular the raid on The Fat Man’s house at the start. As with The Big Blue both versions of the film are presented on a separate encode with a low bitrate AVC compression that averages out at 19.33Mbps for the Version Integralé and 18.47Mbps for the Theatrical Cut. As with The Big Blue the compression is better than you’d expect for a BD-50 with over 4hrs of HD video on it, but there is some compression noise here and there - as well as some very noticeable banding at a couple of points in the film. Mostly the low bit rate makes its presence known in the diffuseness of the grain, which robs the transfer of a completely film-like appearance. Also in correlation with The Big Blue the transfers of the two edits of the film look pretty much the same, with only bitrate differences on offer.
Audio options are a choice of English DTS-HD MA 5.1 or English LPCM 2.0 for each version of the film. Unfortunately for the Version Integralé edit the 5.1 DTS-HD track sounds like it may have been struck from a 2.0 source, as it sounds to my ears to be pretty much identical to the LPCM 2.0 track. For the most part this is no bad thing, as the 2.0 track offers a decent audio presentation; bass is pretty deep and only a touch loose while treble response is a little on the harsh side, lending a rather shrill feel to the dialogue. In general the audio dynamics are good, but dialogue sounds high in the mix and exhibits audible hiss. Unlike in Nikita the gunfire in Léon sounds more authentic and has enough depth here, but the volume is noticeably low when action kicks in - almost as if the action sequences have been slightly compressed dynamically. Thankfully Eric Serra’s score does not sound compressed, it sounds refined and detailed. The soundstage is solid, nothing more, there’s not a tremendous amount of directionality in the fronts but the rears do get used in the action sequences.
When you switch over to the Theatrical Cut the difference between the DTS tracks become night and day, the dialogue sounds very similar - it’s still high in the mix - but when the action kicks in the bass can really be felt, the surrounds come truly to life and the volume of the action is satisfyingly high. The LPCM 2.0 track on the Theatrical Cut is pretty close to its DTS counterpart, just with weaker bass - but it’s still noticeably more bassy than the LPCM track on the Version Integralé. Either way you look at it, the DTS-HD track on the Version Integralé cut sounds poor next to the corresponding track on the Theatrical Cut, and may be all the reason fans need to seek the French or German BD releases over the Optimum (not that I’m saying those releases sound any better, I’ve never owned them).
Extra Features come directly from the R1 Columbia Tristar Deluxe Edition DVD, there’s a 25-minute 10 Year Retrospective featurette that features input from pretty much everyone involved in the film bar Besson and Oldman. It’s too short to offer any real insight into the film’s production, but there is at least a satisfying amount of information shared. An interview each with Natalie Portman and Jean Renó are a little more involving but again too short to really go into depth, at least it’s great to finally see Reno on camera talking about his career with Besson. A standard definition (and poor quality) trailer is also provided.