Playing theatrically in the U.S. as The Professional, Luc Besson's Leon: the Professional is being re-released again in its international version (a.k.a. the Integral Version a.k.a. the Uncut International Version) on DVD from Columbia/Tri-Star. This marks the fourth release of the film for Region 1 so far: the theatrical cut (simply titled The Professional), the International Version, the Superbit International Version, and now this two disc Superbit International Version Deluxe Edition. Collect them all, and trade them with your friends. It's confusing - let it suffice to say that this is the same cut that was previously issued by Columbia/Tri-Star in North America as The International Uncut Version.
Jean Reno (who had previously worked with Besson on La Femme Nikita and Le Dernier Combat) plays Leon, a lonely hired killer who works out of New York City. A master at his trade, Leon is one of the best there is due to his uncanny ability to just blend in and not draw any attention to himself. When the man who lives next door to him gets involved in a drug deal gone wrong, that man's family ends up dead – all except for his twelve year old daughter, Matilida (Natalie Portman of Star Warsand Mars Attacks). She carefully leaves the scene and rings Leon's doorbell. He lets her in with some reluctance, effectively saving her life by doing so.
With no one else to turn to, Matilda worms her way into Leon's life and ends up staying with him, hoping that he'll train her to become a 'cleaner' so that she can get revenge on the drug dealers who killer her family, her baby brother specifically. As the two develop a strange, almost symbiotic relationship together, Matilida tracks down the killers and tries to take them down. This leaves Leon with no choice but to help her or let her walk to her own death. All the while, a drug addicted cop named Agent Stansfield (played brilliantly by Gary Oldman of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Hannibal) with certain unethical ties to the underworld wants to get rid of the only eye-witness to the murder - Matilida.
Very well directed with some excellent and, at times, very moving cinematography, Leon: The Professional is one of the finest action films ever made. Besson's camera takes the viewer into the world of Leon and Matilda, who are able to fill a void in each other's lives that no one else could. Along the way, Matilda teaches the stone-cold Leon how to feel and helps him get in touch with his paternal side, while he's able to supply her with the revenge she so desperately craves for the death of her family.
In addition to Besson's stellar direction, the performances from the three leads are also very impressive. Jean Reno is sympathetic and likeable despite the fact that he is a hired killer, and Natalie Portman is far better here than you'd guess if you've only seen her in the Star Wars films (where she's absolutely awful). But the highlight of the film's cast is hands down Gary Oldman, who steals the show as the psychotic cop who shows nothing but contempt for everyone but himself. He's a total swine, and you can't help but hate him by the end of the film.
Certain scenes were removed from the film for its North American release that were deemed a little too politically incorrect, including some footage of Portman's character asking Leon to have sex wit her (he declines), Matilda and Leon sleeping together in the same bed, a scene of Matilda playing Russian roulette with a loaded pistol, and other less sanitized moments. Unfortunately, when those cuts were made a lot of character development and valuable background information integral to the story was lost as well. With this release, North American audiences are able to see the film in its longer cut with many of those scenes restored.
Nicely shot with some great sets, solid performances and beautiful cinematography, Leon: The Professional effectively mixes the action and drama genres into one beautiful and engrossing package and comes highly recommended. It's touching, violent, tense and humorous and in short, it's everything a great movie should be.
Leon is presented in a high definition 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks very good, but isn't quite perfect. There's a little bit of print damage here and there (just minor stuff in the form of the odd speck here and there) as well as some fine grain over the image. Colors are nicely defined (reds and skin tones specifically look very, very good) and there's a reasonably high level of detail present in the picture at all times. The black levels are pretty strong and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression, though there are some scenes with visible edge enhancement in them (look at Portman's stripy shirt for a glaring example, it is literally shimmering on the screen). The problem with the transfer is the same problem that has been present on all the other DVD versions of this film that I've seen to date (indicating that it could be either a problem with the negative or a stylistic choice on the part of Besson or cinematographer Thierry Arbogast), the image looks just slightly soft. If you look at objects in the background, desk clutter or pictures or street poles or whatever, they're slightly fuzzy compared to objects that are closer in the frame. Overall though, this is a pretty pleasing presentation, though I can't honestly say that it looks any different than the previous Superbit release and I'm reasonably certain that this is the same transfer - if it isn't, it's damn close.
As on the single disc Superbit release, Columbia offers viewers the choice of English 5.1 Surround Sound tracks in either Dolby Digital or in DTS. There are optional subtitles available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, as well as an English closed captioning option for the hearing impaired.
There wasn't much discernable difference between the two tracks to my ears. Both of them sound pretty decent, but they could have used some more punch in the lower end of the mix. Gunshots and bullet sound effects don't have as much impact as other mixes for other movies have had in the past. That's not to say the tracks sound bad, they don't, but the mix could have been a little bit more aggressive with its use of surround channels and the subwoofer. Overall though, things sound fine. Dialogue is crisp, clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. The action scenes sound great in the front end even if they are just a little bit quiet in the lower portion and the rears, and the high end is free of any annoying 'tinny' effects. Comparing this to the previous Superbit release yields evidence that this is not the same DTS mix. There is more bass, and more action from the rear channels.
The real difference between this two disc set and the previous Superbit release comes in the form of the supplements. While the rumored commentary from Natalie Portman is nowhere to be found, there are three brand new featurettes available on the second disc as well as a few other goodies.
On disc one, there is a Fact Track that is basically a subtitle option that displays a wealth of trivia about the film as it plays. It covers all manner of information from little anecdotes about why certain bit part players were cast down to an interesting coincidence about Gary Oldman (he debuted playing Sid Vicious, and the first time his character appears in Leon he is in the Chelsea Hotel, where Vicious himself once stayed in the days before his death).
On the second disc are the following features, all in anamorphic widescreen with optional subtitles available in Spanish and Portuguese:
Leon - A Ten Year Retrospective: (25:08) This documentary takes a look at the history behind the film from the perspectives of many of those who were involved in it. On hand for on camera interviews are producer Patrick Ledoux, performers Maiwenn Le Besco, Natalie Portman, Jean Reno, Ellen Greene, and Michael Badalucco, costume designer Magali Guidasco, cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and casting agent Todd Thaler. Each one of them has a good story about the film, whether it be Maiween discussing how Reno cried when Besson offered him the lead over dinner one night or whether it be Ellen Greene discussing how her breasts had to be taped while she was in the bath tub for her death scene. Much attention is given to the casting of Reno and Portman, and rightly so, and there is some interesting behind the scenes footage and pictures on display here that, to the best of my knowledge at least, hasn't been made available before – at least not on any of the Region 1 DVD releases.
Jean Reno - The Road To Leon: (12:24) This is basically a short A&E Biography style look at the life and career of Jean Reno. Reno himself is on hand for some decent interview footage and has made available some early personal photographs from his past. He discusses his service in the French military as well as his early acting work right up through to his renowned work with Luc Besson. Reno comes across as a genuinely nice guy and listening to him tell his story is quite interesting.
Natalie Portman – Starting Young: (13:49) The last of the documentaries on the second disc is look at Natalie Portman's early career. Through the use of some early photographs, brand new interview footage, and even her audition tape for the role that she earned in this film, Starting Young does a good job of filling us in on how she got the role and some of the odd circumstances around her part. She talks about how her character smoked in the film, as well as some of the sexual undercurrents her character shares with Leon (or the lack thereof). While I haven't been floored by anything that Portman has done since this film, this remains an interesting look at her first and finest film and her involvement therein.
Rounding out the extra features in the set are trailers for The Fifth Element – Ultimate Edition, the Monster special edition, The Grudge, Renegade, House Of Flying Daggers, and Dead Birds.
Ideally, Columbia/Tri-Star would have included the theatrical cut of the film in this set as well, making it closer to a definitive edition (this has been done on import releases, the Korean 2 disc special edition set specifically) but that doesn't happen here. A commentary track from either Portman, Besson (and yes, I know he doesn't like to do commentaries but it sure would be keen if he did!) or both would have also been quite welcome, but that doesn't happen either. Suspiciously absent from any of the extra features is the participation of, not surprisingly, Luc Besson, but also Gary Oldman as well.
Also worth noting that the trailers, international ad campaign artwork, isolated score, liner notes, talent files and production notes that were on the previous Uncut International Version released by Columbia/Tri-Star are nowhere to be found on this release.
So while the extra features are pretty good, they sure could have been better...
While this release could have been improved on (especially in the extra features department – there's a fair bit missing!), the new documentaries are pretty good. No vast improvements are made over prior releases as far as the audio and video go, but the film has always looked and sounded decent on DVD to begin with. Given the strength of the film itself and the overall quality of the package despite a few shortcomings, the two disc Leon The Professional: Deluxe Edition DVD comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.