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“I like these calm little moments before the storm.”

It’s strange to think that the masterpiece, Léon, was the French Director Luc Besson’s first US hit. Stranger still when you realise that he has actually only directed about half a dozen films in his entire career—most of them in his native French. His first proper feature film came to our screens back in the eighties, the little-known Le Dernier Combat. Largely devoid of dialogue, and shot in black-and-white, it depicted a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic future where survival was the name of the game. It was also his first film with the great actor Jean Reno, his favourite collaborator (Like De Niro to Scorsese). His next endeavour, Subway, starring Christopher Lambert, was a more obscure tale of strange individuals on the Metro. It’s possibly his least accessible work, but it did showcase more of Besson’s very distinctive style and way of filmmaking. It too had a brief role of Reno, although his role as a drummer wearing bad shorts was slightly odd to say the least.

I would say that The Big Blue was the first decent Besson film, again with Jean Reno (and this time Rosanna Arquette). It had a more epic feel to it, exploring the world of free-diving and the mysticism behind the big blue ocean below. Then came Nikita—now we’re talking—this is Besson at his best, at least in terms of his French film career, showcasing all of his style in an environment which suited it: the world of assassins. Nikita starred Anna Parillaud in the titular role as a reformed drug addict given a job as an assassin, alongside the great French actor Tcheky Karyo and, of course, Besson regular Reno. It was in this film that Reno was cast as Victor, the Cleaner—a highly skilled assassin called upon to ‘clean up’ missions gone wrong. It was a great character dressed in a distinctive long wool coat concealing many silenced pistols, and wearing trademark sunglasses and hat. Everything but the style of hat remained in Reno’s transition from Victor to Léon, a story written in order to fully exploit a fantastic (and terribly underused) character and originally even entitled ‘The Cleaner’.

Leon: The Professional - Deluxe Edition
Film
Léon is an assassin—the best—who is called upon for the most difficult operations, and who does a clinical, precise job: always hitting his target. We first come across him on an operation and it soon becomes apparent that he is something of a super-assassin, silently slipping nooses around the necks of unsuspecting bodyguards, lurking in air vents or stairwells, or merely in the shadows right behind his intended victim. Taking pride in his vocation, Léon is a consummate professional. But, as with all great heroes (and anti-heroes) he has a weakness, and it is for a young girl who lives in his apartment block.

Mathilda is already at a low point in her life when corrupt DEA Agents turn up at her door. Her drug-dealing dad has re-married, leaving her with an uncaring stepmother and an abusive step-sister, and the only thing in her life worth anything is her four-year-old brother. So when the DEA take out her entire family, including her little brother, she has no one to turn to and appears on the doorstep of the reclusive hit-man, Léon. When he lets her in, he opens the door to no end of trouble, and she turns his world upside down for better and worse. You see, whilst she offers him some much needed companionship, humour and light in his life, she has a bounty on her head—the DEA Agents know that she is still alive and are looking for her.

What follows is a beautifully painted tale of life and death, love and hate, revenge and redemption, played out perfectly—like a symphony—from start to finish. Running the opening credits over his signature rolling landscape (in Nikita it was the cobbled street, here it is the Atlantic Ocean) and then through the streets of New York, Besson brings more style to the first five minutes of this movie than most directors manage over the entirety of their works. The close-ups, the use of slow-motion, even the way his characters move around the screen—it is one big ballet—albeit a dance of death. His ideas too, are unique, both in terms of script and story. He creates a world where a hit-man—a man who takes other people’s lives for money—is the hero, and where a cop—a man who is supposed to protect and serve the public—is the villain. It’s not as if this hasn’t been done before or since, but Besson does it so effortlessly and with such panache. The way the villain cracks open his pills before an operation, twisting and contorting his neck and face whilst the drugs kick in and the way the hero grabs and shields the girl, enveloping her and protecting her from bullets and explosions without a thought for anything but her safety, these are all shots that Besson creates with the express intention of painting a picture of good and evil. And if there was one shot that encapsulates the sentiment of the entire movie, it would be the moment when Mathilda is standing in Léon’s doorway, with all the horror in her life right behind her, and about to smother her, all the while crying for him to save her—and then, as he opens the doors to her, the darkness cast upon her giving way to the light. This is a defining moment not only in the movie, but also in Besson’s career—the pinnacle of his film history. And with Léon he created a film that oozed style, but, for the first time, did not do so at the price of substance.

“Death is whimsical today.”

Of course this stylishly-directed intelligent action film is helped no end by a tremendous score which follows the story in every detail: even ceasing at the click of the fingers of one of the characters. When a scene requires tension, the score draws it out of you, building the shots and exploding the action onto the screen. At the same time, in moments of emotion, it is much more reflective or positively passionate, really making you feel for the characters and their plight. Eric Serra is the masterful composer behind this score and, if you have any doubts as to his genius, then watch Nikita or The Big Blue or pretty-much any other Luc Besson film and listen to the way he brings scenes to life—really making the audience feel every single thing from joy to fear at the whim of the orchestra. There are some great composers out there—most of the best being distinctive to the point of repetition—but Serra is capable of both being recognisable and, at the same time, innovating with every note. His composition for Léon carries the movie from start to finish, with a bare couple of breaks for alternate tracks (Bjork and Sting) along the way. It is one of the best scores that I have ever heard.

Last, but far from least, there is the cast. With the aforementioned Jean Reno bringing some fantastic drive and professionalism to his character, we see that he too has reached the peak of his career. Apart from his roles in many of Besson’s films, Reno has also made a name for himself playing tough, no-nonsense individuals in almost every Hollywood film that he has been in since. Whether playing a bad-guy opposite Cruise’s hero in the convoluted but clever Brian De Palma Mission: Impossible movie or a special ops soldier trying to take the reigns of a ludicrously big fire-breathing monster in the disappointing Godzilla, Reno always brings the same power to the role. He even secured a lead part opposite Robert DeNiro himself in the excellent John Frankenheimer movie Ronin, also returning to his native France to make a flurry of films, including the notable mystery thrillers The Crimson Rivers 1 and 2 and the Visitéur comedies.

“The rifle is the first weapon you learn how to use, because it lets you keep your distance from the client. The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you learn.”

Leon: The Professional - Deluxe Edition
Reno, quite simply, is Léon. The role was written for and around him, and there is nobody else who could have even attempted to play this part. Half cold killer and half lonely child, it is also the most well rounded character that he has ever portrayed. In fact, Léon’s character has even gained an extra dimension in the transferral from Nikita to Léon, simply because of Mathilda, who is played by the now ultra-famous and extremely lovely Natalie Portman. Back then, she was an unknown twelve-year-old girl tasked with portraying, convincingly, a girl of the same age who had lost her entire family in a brutal massacre and fallen in love with a middle-aged hit-man. And not a childhood crush, she was supposed to show true love. How on earth is anybody expected to do that? And yet, with every breath, every tear, and every smile, this young actress brought her character to life and made her the Juliet to his Romeo or, more aptly, the Bonnie to his Clyde. Portman has been rocketing towards stardom ever since, securing smaller parts in movies like the tremendous Al Pacino/Robert De Niro thriller i>Heat[/i] and then getting her biggest break as that queen in those Star Wars prequels. With her new film, Neil Jordan’s Closer, starring Clive Owen, Jude Law and Julia Roberts, promising a sexier and more risqué character than she has ever portrayed before, it seems that Portman is also finally making the transition to ‘adult’ roles—although her characters have always been wildly mature beyond their years. I have great hopes for her future—a veritable Maria Sharapova of the cinema world—and, with another excellent Comic book interpretation—V for Vendetta (being directed by the Wachowskis)—in the pipeline, things couldn’t get much better for her.

Of course there cannot be a hero without a villain. So it’s lucky that we have the fantastic Gary Oldman taking up the reigns. Perfectly cast as the corrupt and downright evil DEA Agent Stansfield this also pretty-much stands out as a peak in Oldman’s career. A tremendous actor, famed for putting body and soul into his roles, that fact is never more evident than when he gives his Beethoven-inspired drug-induced rant about classical music during the horrific raid towards the start of the movie. Although he made his directorial debut with the painfully good study of domestic violence and alcoholism, Nil By Mouth, then took small but good parts in various films from JFK and True Romance to Hannibal, and even took another part as a rather strangely coiffured villain in Luc Besson’s fantastical sci-fi The Fifth Element, opposite the lovely and unique Milla Jovovich, he has never surpassed the absolute fury of his role in Léon. And if you like him here, you should check out the vastly underrated Romeo is Bleeding. He’s a fantastic actor and I think he’ll make a great Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming Batman Begins, which I have high hopes for.

“I take no pleasure in taking life if it’s from a person who doesn’t care about it.”

This is the best movie that we have ever seen from Luc Besson, and a big question for the last few years has been whether we will ever see another film directed by him. You see, since The Fifth Element, he has only produced and written films. Now whilst these have often been entertaining (The Transporter and the excellent French Taxi trilogy—not the horrible, ripped-off, Hollywood remakes), they have not been in the same league as Léon and Nikita. It’s a real shame to see such wasted talent and I hope that his roster for forthcoming films (which currently includes an animation) vastly improves in the near future. Now, whilst I think that the theatrical version of Léon was a pretty-much perfect production that made my top three all-time films, if there was anything in it that audiences found difficult to handle, it was the relationship between Léon and Mathilda. However this is where the director’s cut makes all the difference. Containing over twenty minutes of extra footage, the director’s cut adds to all of the best elements from the theatrical cut—in terms of dialogue, acting and action—but mostly, and most importantly, it develops the relationship between Léon and Mathilda, notably adding to Léon’s character and background as well.

For those who have not seen, let alone purchased the Director’s Cut—‘Version Integrale’—there are some spoilers ahead so you’ll have to take my words and my word for it that it is a vastly superior cut to an already tremendous movie. The first of the additional bits that we get is an extra moment of dialogue between Léon and Mathilda during one of their first conversations where he asks how old she is and she lies and tells him that she is eighteen. Then we get a much more significant and rather dramatic scene where Mathilda puts Léon’s feelings for her to the ultimate test—playing Russian Roulette, and with three bullets, no less. Léon proceeds to explain to her the price of revenge, hinting at his own painful experience in the matter—something which he expands upon later on in this cut.

“I want love, or death. That’s it.”

The most significant chunk of footage runs from about 01:10 to 01:25, starting with a montage of assassination missions that Léon and Mathilda go on together. We also get a scene with them celebrating Mathilda’s first mission. This run of extra footage concludes with a dramatic scene where a hit gets ugly and Léon first performs the ‘ring trick’, which he goes on to use in the final confrontation of the movie. A few minutes later we see a new scene where Léon introduces his student to his handler and mentor, Tony, who is none too happy about Mathilda’s youth. Then, prior to Léon’s first ‘private’ mission, we get some extra dialogue between them where he tells her that she cannot come on the mission because it is ‘too big’. Whilst he is out on said mission there is an extra scene where she ‘befriends’ some kids in the street below the apartment.

Leon: The Professional - Deluxe Edition
Oh, and then there’s the Big One—perhaps not in terms of duration or action, but certainly in terms of character development and depth. Mathilda overtly attempts to seduce Léon—asking him outright to sleep with her. He refuses and goes on to explain why, telling her the story of his first true love, his first hit and how he ended up in the U.S. She finally persuades him to sleep with her, but merely side-by-side in the bed together. Of course, cutting this—potentially the most controversial of the additions—out of the final cut, had the unfortunate effect of leaving it in doubt as to what exactly happened between them as all you see in the theatrical cut is them waking up in bed together.

There have been too many releases of Léon over the years, with Columbia Tri-Star themselves having released no less than four different region one releases. The only region two release so far has been of the theatrical cut. There are also several foreign releases available, including a Korean region three two-disc edition that holds both the theatrical and director’s cuts. This Deluxe Edition purports to have a ‘Superbit quality transfer’ and to correct the issues that the original Columbia Tri-Star Superbit edition reputedly had with its soundtrack.

Video
Léon: Deluxe Edition is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It seems to have the best transfer of all versions released to this date. Graced with the Superbit logo, it exhibits good detail and depth in most respects. From the opening trademark shot, panning over the lake and into New York, to the close-ups and the explosions, this visually stylish production has certainly been given a makeover, but does it warrant the labelling of deluxe edition? I would argue, yes, it does, since this is clearly the best that they could do with the material on offer. Léon isn’t a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster made after the turn of the millennium, it’s over ten year’s old and it is understandable that there are going to be issues that can never be rectified—here at least they have tried to present it in the best possible way.

“Don’t you ever do that again or I break your head!”

And we do get a fantastic transfer: objects in focus are solid and well represented, with only a little noticeable edge enhancement on some of the wider shots and no sign of artefacting. Up close, you can see the sweat, or tears cascading down the skin of the characters, sometimes even the very pores on their faces. Colours are bright and realistic, even with the yellowy hue that the director chose to tint the picture with. The shadows, particularly necessary during scenes like the opening mission, are very deep and black—easily solid enough to hide Léon in the darkness. Yes, there is a marginal grain running throughout the movie, but it never impinges upon your enjoyment of the film. Similarly there are some blemishes on the transfer—scratches and marks appear right from the start – but again they are so minimal and infrequent, and the story is so compelling, that you would be hard pushed to be distracted by them.

Audio
This new Deluxe Edition of Léon not only has the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but also a DTS track. This track clearly has the edge over all previous tracks, notably correcting the acknowledged deficiency in the previous Superbit edition’s DTS LFE channel. Whilst again we are forced to remember that this does not have the thunder of a Hollywood blockbuster with a vastly oversized budget, the DTS track still gives it depth both in terms of bass and sheer power. Unlike many DTS vs. Dolby 5.1 audio situations, the tracks here are quite different in directionality—with the former not only offering up more bass but also putting you into the thick of things in terms of surround action and score, where the latter restricts some of the sounds to just one or two of the channels. Still, both tracks exhibit a keen attention to detail, picking up on all of the background sounds—from subway screeching, car horns and police sirens to clocks ticking and heavy breathing. The dialogue is also well represented in both cases: whether whispering or shouting. The bullets thump around the room—every single 9mm from Léon’s compensated Beretta 92s blasts into your living room—and the explosions provide the necessary ammunition to really shake things up. Of course, the highlight is the score, which is perfectly set to every image and every action, and possibly the best bass comes from the growling build-up during key points in the movie, or from the surprise ‘bangs’ from shock instances—like doors slamming shut and Transformers suddenly being turned on the TV.

Extras
Fact Track—The first disc has one extra feature: a fact track that plays through the subtitle stream over the course of the movie. Here we learn everything from in which order the scenes were filmed to the locations used and how they were shot. Every cast member is given a good history and bio—notably Jean Reno was in the best physical condition of his life for this movie, his fifth collaboration with Besson. Some of the material pertaining to the movie is duplicated—or rather expanded on—in the documentaries below, but as well as these interesting facts we do get some slightly irrelevant but nevertheless nice trivia mainly about New York: how many 911 calls are made daily, when elevators first came to New York City, and when the subway was first opened etc. The facts seem to come fast and furious for the first few minutes and then slow down to a snail-like pace of one every fifteen to twenty seconds: often freezing the fact on screen for much longer than you would need to read it (although this is clearly better than going too fast to read!).

“I’ve decided what to do with my life. I wanna’ be a cleaner.”

Leon: The Professional - Deluxe Edition
All of the other extras are housed on the second disc. It’s a shame that there’s no participation from either Luc Besson (who reportedly hates DVD extras because he feels that they destroy the mystery of a movie) or from our very own Gary Oldman. I have to mention at this stage that I do not understand the rumour that Luc Besson does not like to ‘reveal’ his trade secrets in something such as a commentary—perhaps he was misquoted once, or perhaps people just assumed that he did not like DVD extras etc. because he never appeared to contribute to them, but I have a book at home—written in French by Besson himself—covering the making of Léon in intricate detail. Moreover, he has written similarly lengthy full-colour making-of books for most of his films, including the The Fifth Element and Nikita (spoilers to those who have not seen the film: the book includes the script to the original ending where Stansfield shoots Léon only to be confronted by Mathilda, who hands him a grenade pin and then opens her jacket to reveal that she is strapped with grenades. You can guess the rest). Anyway, on the plus side, all of the featurettes are presented in anamorphic widescreen with optional Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.

Ten-Year Retrospective: Cast and Crew Look Back—On the second disc the most substantial extra is a twenty-five minute documentary looking back at the movie. Split into sections on casting, locations, specific scenes, the relationship between the two lead characters, alternate takes, directing the film, cutting scenes and explosions, it features contributions from most of the cast and crew, regaling their tales of the production. The producer, Patrick Ledoux talks about how Léon came about: while Luc Besson was waiting to do The Fifth Element, and how there was a much longer cut that once existed. The casting director, Todd Thaler, discusses the difficulty in finding a young actress to play the role of Mathilda and the costume designer, Magalie Guidasci, talks about finding the right look for Mathilda. The Director of Photography, Thierry Arbogast—who has worked on most of Besson’s projects—is the only participant to speak in French and is poorly dubbed-over by an over-enthusiastic translator, but does offer some nice insights into how they did some of the more unusual sequences. Then we have cast members Frank Senger (‘The Fat Man’), Ellen Greene (Mathilda’s Mother) and Michael Badalucco (Mathilda’s Father) talking about their respective scenes. The aforementioned talent Natalie Portman, ‘Maiwenn’ (‘Blond Babe’) and Jean Reno all give a bit more insight into the production—Reno, upon being surprised by the script as a gift from Besson, merely said ‘I’m already ready’. An, in fact, the most interesting information comes Maiwenn—Besson’s once fiancée—she met him when she was twelve and he was thirty and she explains, somewhat emotionally but possibly immaturely, how Léon was their story about their ‘perfectly natural’ love. Hmm, I’m not sure whether Besson was quite as honourable as Léon however—by sixteen he had her pregnant and giving birth to a baby girl. It’s a great documentary and it features some behind-the-scenes shots, footage of on-set gags, publicity stills and even alternate takes of a couple of different scenes. If you are interested in Léon, this is well worth you time.

Jean Reno: The Road to Léon—Running at a little less than a quarter-of-an-hour, this interesting documentary focuses on the actor, Reno, taking us on a journey from his childhood in Casablanca and his time in the military, to the acting schools in Paris and his desire to gain experience by actually doing films. He met twenty-two year-old Besson and was cast in every film Besson made up until Léon. He explained how, for his role in Nikita, he was only given his lines and his outfit on the morning of shooting and goes on to talk about playing the part of the assassin in both movies and how he does not want to reprise the role for fear of being typecast. It’s an excellent companion piece to the main documentary, containing plenty of stills and even some footage from the premiere of Léon, and it is really nice to see so much input from Reno himself.


Natalie Portman: Starting Young—Another fifteen-minute featurette explores the character of Mathilda and the now world-famous actress who portrayed her, Natalie Portman. Simply radiating on interview, she talks about how she read the script when she was only eleven and had to convince her parents to relent and let her audition for the role. After getting it, apparently her parents required a contract to be formed, explicitly stating what could and could not go into the film: a limit to Mathilda’s smoking and the cutting of some of the more risqué scenes—including a shower scene that clearly would have been going too far! She talks about working closely with Reno and Gary Oldman, the latter of whom would merely need to be observed during scenes—he was so captivating and terrifying that she had to do little ‘acting’ in their scenes together. She also mentions the paranoia over guns on set—so soon after the Crow ‘accident’ where Brandon Lee was killed—and how she learned a great deal about the weapons. It’s really nice to hear from her in person, and to hear that she not only credits this film with having launched her career in a unique and brilliant way, but she would love to reprise this role, or take any other role Besson had to offer her in future. I’m not sure about a spin-off Mathilda film, but it would be a lot better than the current state of limbo Besson is in—not directing anything!

Trailers—Other than that, there are just a bunch of trailers for other films (not including Léon itself). There are trailers for the new ‘ultimate’ DVD edition of the visually unique Besson sci-fi, The Fifth Element, reviewed here, the disturbing academy-award-winning Charlize Theron drama Monster and the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring Japanese horror remake, The Grudge, reviewed here. Then there’s the fellow French director Christophe Gans’ similarly visually unique Vincent Cassel Western, Renegade, reviewed here, the new Crouching Tiger/Hero style martial arts drama House of Flying Daggers with the lovely Zhang Ziyi, and the little-known horror western, Dead Birds, which actually looks quite unusual.

It is really a shame that we are missing the extras included on previous Columbia Tri-Star releases of Léon—the isolated music score and the poster gallery as I am sure that they could have quite easily been included on this two-disc edition.

Leon: The Professional - Deluxe Edition
Overall
Well, Léon is my favourite film of all time, and I have tried to explain why. It marks a high point in the careers of all those involved and has clearly stood the test of time over the last ten years. Finally given the ‘deluxe’ treatment, fans should not be disappointed as this is clearly the definitive edition to own—technically improving on all previous versions in terms of video and going some way towards rectifying the problems inherent on some of the previous audio tracks. Whilst there are some items that appear to be missing—seamless integrating of both cuts of the movie, participation from the director and Gary Oldman, and a reported commentary track recorded by Natalie Portman would have been nice inclusions, and extra footage from a hinted-at even longer version would have been spectacular—this is still a decent effort. The documentaries are remarkably informative and well worth your time. I highly recommend you should own a copy of this film (no question that it should be the director’s cut) and this is clearly the edition to own.

“It’s when you start to become really afraid of death that you learn to appreciate life.”


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