Léon: The Professional (Deluxe Edition) Review
Warning: this review contains major spoilers.
Luc Besson's Léon, or, as it is known in the US, The Professional, is the perfect example of how to concoct a solid action thriller. A French production that is curious for its Americanness, this tour de fource of acting, writing and directing showcases several supremely talented individuals at the height of their game, and features one of the most powerful platonic love stories in popular cinema.
12-year-old Matilda (Natalie Portman) lives in a run-down New York appartment with her brutish father, uncaring mother and older sister, and her younger brother, the only person in the world that prevents her from completely losing it. One day, she returns home from shopping to find that her entire family has been executed by corrupt cop Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his team of thugs. With nowhere else to go, she shows up on the doorstep of Leon (Jean Reno), her neighbour who happens also to be a "cleaner": in other words, a hitman. Leon is reluctant to help her - in his world, she would be a liability - but he slowly begins to warm to her and takes her under his wing, teaching her the tricks of the hitman's trade. However, he soon finds himself facing two problems: first of all, Matilda wants to exact revenge against Stansfield for the murder of her brother; secondly, she is developing something of an infatuation with Leon.
Few films have succeeded in juggling action and plot as successfully as this. While on one hand it is a gripping thriller with expertly-choreographed stunts and blistering gunplay - beautifully shot by Thierry Arbogast and set to Eric Serra's pounding score - these elements can only carry a movie so far, and to compliment the action, Léon also provides some of the most moving characterisations that the genre has ever seen. At its heart is the complex bond between Leon and Matilda, a relationship that has both confused and outraged viewers for years since its release. The film was originally released in a truncated format with much of the character development removed due to poor test screenings, and when the longer "intergrale" edition was released some years later, audiences who had already expressed concern about the shorter cut's violence were unsurprisingly even more miffed when they saw the significantly more detailed treatment of the relationship between Leon and Matilda in the full-length cut. The bond between these two characters is a complex one, and their relationship cannot possibly be explained in conventional terms. The fact that one character is a 12-year-old while the other is a grown man lies at the heart of the issue, and those whose definition of "love" is limited to the notion of two people fucking are understandably going to be disturbed and incensed by what, when viewed from such a narrowminded perspective, looks like a perverted relationship that could almost be accused of actively encouraging paedophilia.
Often, Matilda behaves like an adult trapped inside a child's body, and likewise Leon, despite his decidedly adult profession, exhibits many childlike traits. The roles are not finite, however, and throughout the film they trade positions. When Leon attempts to console the recently-bereaved Matilda by using an oven glove as a puppet, or when he chastises her for smoking, he is definitely portrayed in the manner of a parent looking out for his child, yet on other occasions, such as when she teaches him to read or insists that he share a bed with her, their functions are clearly reversed. It is this notion of a child living in the world of adults and acting in a manner beyond her years that disturbs so many people, and it strikes me as being entirely indicative of the fact that the vast majority of people cannot and will not accept the fact that children grow up faster than adults would like them to. The issue has further been clouded by the fact that Besson's girlfriend at the time, Maïwenn Le Besco (who is interviewed on this DVD and recently appeared in the excellent Haute Tension), fell in love with the director at a young age and has claimed that Matilda's story is very similar to her own. By and large, though, it seems to me that the furore surrounding this matter has been blown out of all proportion and has generally stemmed from erroneous readings of the film by closed-minded individuals. Matilda is always the instigator - indeed, Leon consistently responds to her advances with a mixture of confusion and horror, and a very potent point is raised in the retrospective feature on the second disc: that intergenerational relationships are almost always characterised from the point of view of the adult, generally portrayed as a salacious pervert, completely ignoring the fact that young girls do indeed develop fixations on older men.
While Matilda is perhaps confused about her emotions, Leon eventually does come to love her, although not in the way that she wants him to. By the end of the film, he clearly loves her in the way that a father loves a daughter, whereas the way in which Matilda sees him is more complex: in her mind, she has constructed multiple roles for him to occupy, including both parent and potential lover. It is for that reason that their relationship is doomed to failure, and the film can only end with the death of one of them. That one must be Leon, for killing Matilda would make for a deeply depressing end. In any event Leon's character arc is complete by the films end: coming to know Matilda has changed him, there is essentially nothing more for him to do. His demise leaves the door open for Matilda's future - a future she arguably would not have had access to had she remained with Leon. Leon represents a fantastic study of such a relationship, and it is to Besson's credit that he avoids preaching to the audience, neither condoning nor condemning it.
The role reversal apparent in the Leon/Matilda relationship extends to the contrast between Leon and Stansfield. In a conventional film, Stansfield, a man of the law, would be the good guy and Leon, a hitman, would be the villain. In Leon, however, Stansfield is portrayed as a man without morals who, having shot dead a four year old, is only concerned about the blood on his suit, while Leon has rules that he rigidly abides by - most crucially, "no women, no children". Mike Bracken pointed out in his excellent review that one can even see this disparity in the clothes they wear: Leon with his ill-fitting but neatly-pressed medley of different sections, Stansfield with his up-market but persistently-crumpled suit. We're talking shades of grey here, and those expecting a clear-cut distinction between good and evil will undoubtedly be disappointed.
Of course, none of this would work were it not for the stunning performances by the three leads, not least of them young Natalie Portman, in her first and arguably best role. Generally, child actors portraying kids who act older than their physical age either come across as cutesy, or pretentious, or both, but Portman has the role down to pat, giving a harrowing performance that never consciously seems like acting. As a person, Portman herself may have something of a reputation for being a precociously opinionated snob, but none of this carries over to the screen. (Before anyone knocks me, I have nothing against precociously opinionated people - the world would certainly be a lot less interesting without them. However, Portman's ignorant comments about, among other things, the horror genre, do not sit well with me.) Jean Reno, who essentially reprises the character of Victor from his previous collaboration with Besson, Nikita, is also extremely impressive, imbuing the character of Leon with a multitude of subtle quirks and creating an incredibly multifaceted character that, in the hands of a lesser actor, could easily have been reduced to a buffoon. His portrayal makes it abundantly clear that Leon, although uneducated, is far from stupid: a remarkably complex individual, he is astute and skilled in his own area of expertise. Stealing every scene in which he appears, however, is Gary Oldman who, like Reno, masterfully handles a character that could so easily have been a complete joke. Oldman's Stansfield is a quintessential movie madman, completely out of control and lacking any sort of empathy. His performance is alternately horrifying and hilarious, and on no occasion moreso than when he blows away members of Matilda's family while humming Beethoven.
Léon is that rare example of an action movie done absolutely right. It doesn't talk down to its audience, it doesn't wallow in mindless exploitation and, most importantly, is completely driven by the characters. A phenomenal achievement for the genre, those who haven't seen this film have missed out on something very special.
Presented anamorphically in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Léon does not look particularly good at all. The film's previous DVD presentations have all been sub-par, and the transfer used here appears to be exactly the same one that showed up both on the original US release of the integrale cut and the subsequent Superbit release. (The Superbit logo is even on the back of this release's cover.) The image consistently lacks detail and suffers from severe ringing and an excessive amount of noise reduction, and bafflingly, approximately 30 minutes, in the middle of the film, have been encoded interlaced (I believe that this falls within the remit of the material that was cut from the initial release of the film). This transfer is so poor that at times it looks worse than LaserDisc, and I have an extremely hard time believing the "Mastered in High Definition" tag on the cover to be accurate.
Separate Dolby Digital and DTS mixes are provided in 5.1 surround, and both are very good indeed, the film sounding significantly better than it looks. The dynamic range is impressive, and there are no apparent problems with synchronisation or distortion. Furthermore, the bass is extremely powerful in the various action set-pieces, creating a thoroughly satisfying auditory experience. I would perhaps give a slight edge to the DTS track for improved clarity, but overall there is very little difference between the two. Subtitles are provided in English, as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese; unfortunately, they are a rather ugly yellow and fall squarely in the middle of the line separating the image area from the letterboxing.
Presented on a 2-disc set, the vast majority of the bonus materials are contained on the second DVD, the first containing only the film and a Fact Track, which presents various pieces of trivia in the form of subtitles as the film plays. The information ranges from mildly interesting to downright irrelevant, but luckily there is a fair amount of it.
The second disc contains three featurettes, interviewing various members of the cast and crew a decade on from when the film was originally made. Luc Besson, who has made his disdain for bonus features known on a number of occasions, is unsurprisingly absent here. The first featurette takes the form of a 10 Year Retrospective, interviewing producer Patrice Ledoux, Besson's then-girlfriend Maïwenn, 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 over the course of 25 minutes. While interesting, it is simply too brief to go into sufficient detail and all too often seems to merely be skimming the surface.
The remaining two featurettes focus specifically on Jean Reno and Natalie Portman, charting their careers, with a particular focus on their roles in Léon, and featuring extensive interviews with the two actors in question. Both run for around 12 minutes and are fairly interesting but, as with the retrospective, don't go into enough detail to do their subjects justice. Also included are a collection of previews for various other Columbia Tristar releases but, annoyingly, no trailers for Léon.
All things considered, the "Deluxe Edition" tag that has been slapped on this package hardly seems appropriate. With an unnacceptably poor video presentation and decidedly limited bonus materials, I can think of absolutely no reason for viewers who already own one of the earlier releases of the full-length version of this film to upgrade. Léon is a fabulous piece of work that, when all said and done, deserves better than this.