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Luc Besson
Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello
Writing Credits:
Luc Besson

A perfect assassin. An innocent girl. They have nothing left to lose except each other.

Calling himself a "cleaner," the mysterious Leon is New York's top hitman. When his next-door neighbors are murdered, Leon becomes the unwilling guardian of the family's sole survivor - 12-year-old Mathilda. But Mathilda doesn't just want protection; she wants revenge. Training her in the deadly tricks of his trade, Leon helps her track the psychotic agent who murdered her family. From the electrifying opening to the fatal finale, Leon, is a non-stop crescendo of action, suspense and surprises. This uncut version contains 24 minutes of extra footage deemed too explicit for the American audience.

Box Office:
Domestic Gross
$19.251 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1

Runtime: 133 min.
Price: $26.95
Release Date: 9/9/2003

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Leon: The Professional (Superbit) (1994)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 28, 2003)

That Jean Reno is one rockin' frog! If more French were like him, we wouldn't have needed to save their snail-eating butts in World War II. (Okay, the truth is that Reno isn't actually French, though he's spent most of his life there. Still, I liked the intro, so I went with it.)

We witness Reno in all his vicious killer glory in Leon, Luc Besson's 1994 story of the titular hitman (Reno) who takes on Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a young female apprentice whose family has been brutally murdered. As the plot progresses, the two develop a strong bond and affection for each other as they create their own little dysfunctional family.

Leon had the potential to be horribly sappy, and it treads on thin ice at times. There are some unnecessarily cutesy scenes, like when Mathilda plays dress-up and imitates celebrities for Leon, or when they have a water fight in the apartment. Yeah, I suppose there was a need to leaven the film's darkness with a little levity, but these segments were simply annoying, and they risked fracturing the mood of the piece.

Make no mistake: Leon is a rough film, and I'm surprised it never churned up more controversy. Or maybe it did, but 1994 wasn't that long ago, and I don't remember any extreme angst surrounding it. A pubescent girl being trained as an assassin has to have raised some hackles.

Whatever controversy may have existed would have been worse if this edition had made US screens. This DVD presents the "uncut international version" which runs 24 minutes longer than the US one did. (In the US, Leon was called The Professional, which leads to this DVD's awkward title of Leon The Professional, but I'll be damned if I'm going to refer to it by that silly name.) Although I saw The Professional theatrically, I don't remember it well enough to verify the additions myself, but a trip to IMDB confirmed that the parts I thought were new indeed didn't appear in 1994. Virtually all of the scenes that were omitted in the US featured either the sexual aspect of the relationship between Leon and Mathilda, or showed her in some socially inappropriate manner (participating in missions, drunk, using a gun). Not all of the rougher stuff involving Mathilda was excised from the US version, but much of it was.

Because it's been so long since I last saw the film, I can't honestly say if Leon works significantly better than The Professional, but I suspect the additions do improve the story. They add a dimension to the awkwardness of the situation that otherwise wouldn't exist. The film would be harsh nonetheless, since the seedy premise remains, but the added footage makes the picture grittier and more real.

In any case, I thought it was a terrific film. Leon provides a little something for almost everyone, as there's enough pure action for fans of that genre but the violence takes on a suitable nastiness that makes it palatable for folks who prefer fare that's darker than the cartoony shoot-em-ups that dominate screens; in the way it depicts the humanity of a hit man, Leon isn't dissimilar from its era-mate Pulp Fiction, though the latter's a lot more glib.

At times director Luc Besson has been accused of favoring style over substance; his last two films - The Messenger and The Fifth Element certainly have legions of detractors - but I honestly disagree. Yes, his movies portray a high level of visual flair that works wonderfully within them, but they also provide the goods, as it were, and Leon may be Besson's best example of that trait. Certainly the movie looks terrific, but it possesses a strong emotional and dramatic backbone as well. It's one of the more affecting "action flicks" I've seen.

It helps that our two leads are absolutely terrific. Reno beautifully plays the gruffness and isolation of Leon and makes him into a much better developed character than was scripted; he adds a life to the role that certainly wouldn't have existed on the printed page. To look at him, you wouldn't think the guy's a tremendous badass, but he makes his hit man persona as convincing - or more so - than any stereotypical action hero could do.

Also terrific is Portman in her first film role. Anyone expecting the leggy lovely she's become will be disappointed, as Portman's a bony and awkward 12-year-old here who shows few traces of the babe to be. She does display an enormous amount of talent, however, as she turns Mathilda into a very realistic-seeming kid. She never resorts to usual child-actor ploys like cuteness or excessive weepiness; she keeps her personality well modulated and appears very believable. This has to have been a tough part, but she pulls it off with aplomb.

Surprisingly, the only dud in the film is Gary Oldman. I really quite fond of his work, as Oldman's one of the most adaptable actors around today, but he becomes a complete ham as corrupt DEA agent Stansfield. Honestly, his performance can be painful to watch as he overplays virtually every scene in which he appears. He used a cartoony presence to much better effect in The Fifth Element, but that movie had a comic book feel to it that doesn't occur in Leon. As it stands, Oldman's extremely broad performance seems out of place.

Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt the movie to a significant degree, as Leon remains a superb piece of work. It's a dramatic, exciting and emotionally moving action film that manages to avoid the pitfalls common amongst a variety of genres. It's not for easily upset viewers, but others should find it very compelling.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C/ Bonus F

Leon the Professional appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though much of the film looked quite good, a few significant concerns lowered my grade.

The main issues revolved around edge enhancement. Far too much of the movie suffered from that distraction. Many shots displayed surprisingly prominent haloes, and these led to other issues. Most of the time, the image stayed reasonably concise and distinct, but due to the edge enhancement, more than a few examples of soft shots occurred. No problems connected to jagged edges popped up, but I saw some shimmering at times, mostly caused by a striped shirt worn by Natalie Portman in chapter 20.

Print flaws caused the other problems during Leon. These never became heavy, and they dissipated somewhat as the movie progressed, but they still caused more issues than I expected from such a modern flick. I saw occasional examples of specks and grit plus the occasional blotch, streak, or nick.

Colors presented the transferís strongest elements. The tones came across as nicely vibrant and dynamic throughout the movie. No signs of bleeding, noise, or other concerns appeared, and the hues consistently seemed vivid and well defined. Black levels also looked deep and dense, but shadows were slightly problematic at times. Some low-light shots were a bit opaque and seemed murkier than Iíd like.

How did the image of the Superbit Leon compare with the original DVD? The pair seemed virtually identical. The old one showed the same pattern of strengths and weaknesses exhibited here. If the Superbit Leon improved upon the originalís picture, I couldnít see it.

The 2000 DVD incarnation of Leon went through a rough history. The initial release featured a 5.1 soundtrack that included very little surround information. To their credit, Columbia-Tristar immediately reissued that version and sent out one with a remastered mix.

The Superbit Leon included both DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. I got the distinct impression that both came from the same source, as I discerned absolutely no differences from one to another. The pair seemed identical in virtually all ways.

Oddly, that source appeared to have been the original forward-dominated mix that got recalled! I donít still have that disc, but I own the re-issued one and when I compared it to the Superbit track, the latter seemed worse in every way. Iíll discuss the Superbit audio and then relate the reasons I thought it wasnít up to the quality of the prior release.

For the most part, the forward spectrum demonstrated good definition. Elements were appropriately placed and they meshed together reasonably well. Music showed nice stereo imaging, and effects popped up in logical locations. The front soundfield seemed fairly engaging and active, but the surrounds added little to the presentation. The music and effects demonstrated some light reinforcement from the rear but very little else. I noticed only minor material from the surrounds.

Audio quality was decent but lacked much pizzazz. Speech usually came across as fairly natural, though some light edginess occasionally marred the lines. Music seemed a bit flat. Eric Serraís score demonstrated little oomph; highs were reasonably clear, but bass appeared lackluster. The same issues confronted the effects. They were acceptably concise and accurate but they didnít feature much punch. As a whole, the track failed to deliver much depth.

That was one way in which the Superbit audio differed from that of the previous version. The latterís low-end seemed somewhat loose, but at least the disc included decent bass response, unlike the Superbit Leon. The most noticeable difference came from the passive surround usage during the Superbit disc. The re-issued one from 2000 presented greatly enhanced activity in the rear speakers and seemed to give us a more immersive piece. Between the general absence of surround material and the lackluster quality of the audio itself, the Superbit discís soundtracks were disappointing.

As with most Superbit titles, Leon included no extras. Unlike many Superbit titles, that didnít mean much of a difference from the original release. The main loss from the earlier Leon was the omission of Eric Serraís isolated score. Otherwise, only a few minor pieces got the boot from the old disc.

That meant the original essentially matched the parameters for a Superbit release. The whole point of Superbit titles is to maximize bit space for picture and audio, and the first disc pretty much already did that. Sure, it added a 2.0 soundtrack and some very minor extras, but I canít imagine the Superbit version found many more bits to use.

Usually I think that Superbit DVDs are at least equal in quality to their predecessors, and most of them are better, even if only by a little. In the case of Leon, unfortunately, the prior DVD is the one to get. Both discs feature virtually identical picture quality, and the Superbit Leon appears to use the wrong audio track. While the original disc included only sparse supplements, the Superbit package featured none. Add all of this up and the Superbit Leon should remain on the shelves. Fans are better off with the original release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3437 Stars Number of Votes: 32
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