Léon (UK - BD RB)
Chris checks out the Blu-ray release of Natalie Portman's feature film début...
Léon (Jean Reno) is a hitman—or ‘cleaner’—living a lonely life in New York’s Little Italy district. His assignments are provided by local Mafioso Tony (Danny Aiello), who operates out of the ‘Supreme Macaroni Company’ store. Léon spends much of his spare time training, nurturing a houseplant and attending screenings of old Gene Kelly musicals. Aside from Tony, Léon‘s only human interaction is with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a twelve-year-old girl who lives with her dysfunctional family in a neighbouring apartment. One day, when Mathilda is at the grocery store, her entire family is murdered by corrupt DEA agents led by the drug-addicted Norman ‘Stan’ Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Upon returning home the terrified girl turns to Léon for sanctuary, which he reluctantly provides.
When Mathilda discovers that Léon is a hitman she begs him to instruct her in the ways of the ‘cleaner’, as she wants to avenge the murder of her four-year-old brother, the only member of her family that she truly loved. In return Mathilda offers her services as a maid and promises to teach him how to read. Léon cautiously accepts her offer and over time a strong an emotional bond develops between them, until their relationship is complicated when Mathilda admits that she is falling in love with him. When Léon discovers a note informing him of Mathilda’s intentions to kill Stansfield he rushes to her aid, setting into motion a series of events that will set corrupt cop and hitman on a collision course.
In 1994 I was smack bang in the middle of what I like to call my ‘pop culture’ phase of cinema; that is to say I was obsessed with any film that had even tenuous links to Quentin Tarantino. Late eighties and early nineties cinema was giving way to a new breed of director, with films like Trainspotting proving that even the British could make ‘cool’ movies, and when I first saw the trailer for Léon it looked like it might gel with my newfound taste in films. I had never seen a Luc Besson film (or heard of Luc Besson for that matter), but I was a fan of some of Gary Oldman’s work and his unsettling performance in the trailer was enough to convince me that I had to see it.
In these days of instantaneous communication it’s very easy to forget that back in the nineties the good old UK was essentially months behind the US, and we we’re usually drip-fed information about upcoming films on late-night TV programs (y’know, the ones hosted by Casey Kasem). It was for this reason that my anticipation for Léon was very high despite not really knowing too much about it, and I can distinctly remember waiting patiently for the home video release of the film so that I could find out whether my excitement was justified. I liked it immensely, and it swiftly established itself as one of my favourite films. Some years later, with the increasing presence of the Internet and the advent of DVD, I learned of a longer 'uncut' version of the film. Originally this was only available on Japanese DVD, but it eventually came to the US and offered a whole twenty-four minutes of additional footage. Needless to say I bought the extended version immediately.
The longer cut didn’t go down too well with American test audience due to the perceived sexual undertones between Léon and Mathilda, but for me it’s the only version of the film to see. The additional twenty-plus minutes greatly expanded the relationship between the two characters, which makes the emotional denouement all the more powerful. While Mathilda clumsily plays at seduction there is never any implication that Léon will abuse his position of trust, thanks largely to the way Jean Reno plays him as a man-child. It’s true that the characters love each other, but the relationship ultimately takes more of a father/daughter turn than that of lovers. At its core the film is a tale about two people helping each other to see that life is worth living in spite of all the evil in the world, and I still find it immensely enjoyable fifteen years after its original release.
Optimum’s release of Léon is presented at its 2.40:1 theatrical widescreen ratio (1080/24p ACV) . I flirted with buying the previously available German Steelbook release of the film, but the high price and rumours of a ‘poor’ transfer put me off. As with most Optimum releases this UK Blu-ray appears to utilise the same transfer as the German Kinowelt release (and the French Paramount effort come to that), which might comes as a disappointment for everyone who decided to hold off for the UK disc.
I guess I should start with the bad. Well, for once the Internet rumours are spot-on—there has definitely been some brightness and contrast boosting on this release. Now the old DVD releases had issues, but in trying to correct them the content makers have gone too far the other way. Brightness and contrast have been elevated to such an extent that they destroy detail in both light and dark areas. For example, on the DVD versions the choker worn by Mathilda has a clearly visible series of stripes on it, but on the BD they’re all but invisible. The same goes for her white cardigan, which blooms to such an extent that the smaller holes become indistinct. As a result of this boosting the colour scheme is also noticeably different from previous versions, with certain scenes looking a little on the yellow side.
On the plus side the level of detail is streets ahead of the DVD, even with the blooming and crushing. Unfortunately the site lacks the ability to show rollover images of the DVD and BD, but take my word for it, the BD is far, far superior in this respect. Colours are also much bolder than before, although they do boarder on oversaturation at times, which could annoy those familiar with the film’s rather muted original look. The edge halos that plagued the DVD releases are far less apparent here, and I didn’t spot any particularly noticeable print damage either. Grain is ever-present, but again it’s not detrimental to the viewing experience. There’s also a smidge less information on all sides of the image compared to the DVD releases, but it’s not really something that you’d notice during normal viewing.
Having written all of that I’m aware that it sounds quite negative, but that wasn’t my intention. Even with the aforementioned issues the positives far outweigh the negatives, and this is still the best looking version of the film I’ve seen by a country mile. In fact, I really have no way of knowing if this is actually closer to the intended look of the film than the DVDs, as it seems to look more like the unit photography than the washed out region one discs. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not nearly as bad as I was led to believe, and I’d even go so far as to say that I was somewhat impressed.
Unlike the German release, which featured a DTS-HD High Resolution 7.1 soundtrack, the UK edition of Léon arrives with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It’s a solid if unspectacular offering, which focuses on delivering on the basics rather than surrounding the viewer with an abundance of effects. The surround channels are used throughout, but I don’t remember any particularly noteworthy use of discrete effects as most of the action takes place at the front of the soundstage. The liveliest bits come during the various ‘cleaning’ missions, but even those aren’t particularly dynamic when compared to the average 5.1 mix for a modern film.
Dialogue is exceptionally clear throughout, but bass is slightly uneven, providing slightly more oomph to a number of low-key scenes than necessary, but not nearly enough to the huge explosion near the end of the film. Eric Serra’s score is one of my all-time favourites, up there with classics from the likes of John Williams and Ennio Morricone, and it is one of the strongest elements of the track. In fact the score accounts for the majority of the surround utilisation and is responsible for much of the film’s atmosphere. All things considered this is a perfectly fine soundtrack that easily matches the quality of the previous DVD releases, but put it up against even the most pedestrian of today’s 5.1 mixes and it will be found wanting. Admittedly that’s not exactly a fair comparison, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of remixing a soundtrack why not go all-out?
The disc’s first and probably most exciting feature—at least for serious fans of the film—is the presence of the theatrical cut of the film presented in full 1080p with Master Audio sound. Now as stated above, I’m of the firm opinion that the extended version of the film is much better than the theatrical cut, but from a historical point of view having the theatrical cut on the disc is excellent news. If nothing else it allows people to view both versions of the film and make up their own minds about the impact of excising over twenty minutes of footage, but it also allows those who first saw the film in its theatrical incarnation to relive those memories.
10 Year Retrospective (25:09 SD): This featurette takes a look at what the cast of Léon (or The Professional as they insist on calling it) are up to ten years after the film’s release. It includes interviews with most of the principal cast, the producer, the director of photography, costume designer, editor and bit players like Luc Besson’s ex-fiancé. Topics of conversation include the origin of the script, casting for the role of Matilda, the moral questions surrounding the relationship between Léon and Matilda (which admittedly are only particularly relevant in the longer version), the performances, tales of the director’s on-set persona, and shooting the effects scenes. Both Besson and Oldman are notable by their absence, but other than that this is a pretty interesting featurette.
Natalie Portman: Starting Young (13:49 SD): This is a dream featurette for all Natalie Portman fans, because the stunning actress occupies most of the runtime. Based on her clothing, the interview appears to have been conducted at the same time as the retrospective interviews and focuses on how Portman got the role (with audition footage), the parental conditions necessary for her participation, working with Reno and Oldman, dealing with the sexual aspects of the script, learning to handle firearms, the premiere, the importance of the film on her future career, and her willingness to do a sequel should Besson ever elect to write one.
Jean Reno: The Road to Léon (25:09 SD): This featurette examines Jean Reno’s early life in Morocco, from his reminiscences about the sights and sounds of Casablanca, to his eventual drafting into French military service. It then touches on how he got his start in acting, his first meeting with Luc Besson, the trappings of success, how he got the part in Léon, his character, his relationship with Portman, his thoughts on being typecast, and his reaction to the fame that the film brought.
Trailer (01:48 SD): This is the film’s theatrical trailer presented in non-anamorphic PAL widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. It doesn’t really do the film justice, but it made me want to see it when I was a teenager.
After an extended period away from the film I was delighted to find that Léon has stood the test of time. It remains a powerful and beautifully crafted piece of cinema with truly memorable performances from its three leads. It’s hard to believe that this was Natalie Portman’s first feature film, or that she was only twelve at the time of its release. She remains a very capable actress to this day, but unfortunately she’s never really been given a character as memorable as Mathilda to showcase her talents. Reno is an actor of some gravitas who has been involved in some questionable American movies over the years. For every Léon and Ronin there’s a Godzilla or The Pink Panther, but for me he will forever be the enigmatic cleaner. I can understand why some people are put off by the over-the-top, almost pantomime performance by Gary Oldman, but I enjoyed him in both The Fifth Element and Lost in Space, so I guess I’m a bit more forgiving than most.
In my opinion the Blu-ray’s shortcomings have been the subject of the usual Internet hyperbole. I was expecting my enjoyment to be severely affected by the black crush and blooming, but if I didn’t own the DVD I would probably have just accepted it as the film’s intended look. It’s certainly a big enough step up in every other department to warrant the upgrade to high definition. I was less impressed with the audio, but as I said above I’m probably being a little bit harsh because I was expecting more. There isn’t much in the way of bonus material, but what little there is on the disc is fairly informative, certainly beyond the level attained by the usual EPKs that accompany films of a more recent vintage. If you’re a fan I have no qualms about recommending this one with the above caveats—at least forewarned is forearmed.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-size captures are available by clicking individual links, but due to .jpg compression the resulting images are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 14th September 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Mater Audio 5.1 English, PCM 2.0 Stereo English
Extras: 10 Year Retrospective, Natalie Portman: Starting Young, Jean Reno: The Road to Léon, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman
Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance and Thriller
Length: 133 minutes
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