WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Luc Besson's Leon is a film that American audiences have appreciated only recently—and only on DVD. You might remember a 1994 theatrical release of a shorter film by Luc Besson called The Professional, but that's a slightly different film (to the tune of about 23 minutes) from the director's intended version, which saw wide release in Europe the same year.
The history of Leon on DVD is interesting. Much to the dismay of fans, Columbia/TriStar originally released the 110-minute The Professional in late 1997, in the infancy of the DVD format. It was a pretty good anamorphic-widescreen transfer, but it didn't contain any footage from the more emotionally resonant European cut. Finally, in late 2000, Columbia/TriStar came through with the correct 133-minute cut of the film, more accurately titled Leon The Professional. That disc offered above-average image quality and minor supplements, but fans (myself included) were ecstatic to finally have that elusive director's cut. For this Superbit release, we get the same 133-minute version of Leon—right down to the same exact source print…unfortunately. (Read the "How's It Look?" section for details.)
Leon's plot is rather absurd and requires much suspension of disbelief, but strangely, that doesn't matter. Especially on repeat viewings (and particularly now that we have the European cut), you come to understand the power of the film's characters and their relationships—particularly between the assassin Leon (Jean Reno) and the young waif Mathilda (Natalie Portman, in her incredibly strong film debut). When a sadistic cop (a deliciously over-the-top Gary Oldman) indelibly changes Mathilda's life, she joins forces with the awkward and reluctant Leon in an unlikely pursuit of revenge. The plot serves only to set in motion a striking character study between a strange father figure and his emotionally shattered but strong-spirited charge.
I've made Leon sound something like a Hallmark movie of the week, but make no mistake: It's a violent film, full of gunthunder and theater-rumbling explosions. Oldman gives the film a sadistic energy that acts as counterpoint to the surprisingly emotional stirrings of the primary plot. But you won't come away from Leon talking about its violence; more likely, you'll be contemplating the nature of its two essential characterizations. I come away with something new each time I watch this film. What does Besson mean to say by portraying his killer, Leon, as a milk-obsessed manchild, while portraying Mathilda as a precocious smoker? What are we to think of the almost-romance that develops between these two very likable characters? It's no wonder that the US theatrical version cut some of the scenes that play up this fascinating yet gentle subtext, considering our country's lingering Puritanism.
The strong performances are, without exception, perfectly in service of the characters. Leon is one of those films that defies you to imagine anyone else in its key roles. This is probably the best performance Reno will ever give, and it may also be the strongest work we see from Portman. In each case, the character seems to have been written specifically for the actor. By the end of this film, in which an explosive sacrifice is made in the name of love, you truly feel for these people, despite the action-film stereotypes surrounding them.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Leon The Professional: Superbit in a good-but-not-great anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is impressive, reaching mostly into backgrounds. Colors seem somewhat flat but are probably accurate to the palette. Blacks are adequately deep.
However, in truth, I found very little difference between this effort and the image of the previously released edition. The level of fine detail is slightly improved. But watching on a 65" screen, I discovered the same flaws—edge halos remain, and they're vivid in quite a few scenes, evident as sharp ringing around hard outlines. Plus—and this is something that I've complained about regarding previous Superbit editions (e.g. Heavy Metal, The Quick and the Dead)—the exact same source print has been used, and therefore it contains all the same flaws and smudges. Considering the philosophy of the Superbit line, to utilize as much disc space as possible in favor of superior image quality, why doesn't Columbia/TriStar invest in a new transfer from cleaned-up elements? By using the same old elements, the Superbit process just magnifies flaws.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
This Superbit DVD contains two 5.1 tracks—Dolby Digital and DTS. I listened to the opening 10 minutes, switching back and forth frequently, and could discern virtually no difference between the two tracks. They're both just fine, although—as reported elsewhere—I noticed that both tracks suffer in comparison with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track of the corrected original release. The bass of the original disc definitely boasts more oomph, in both the score and the booming of guns and explosions.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
True to the Superbit philosophy, this disc contains no extras. If the image quality had been a lot more impressive than it is, I might have understood.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
If you've got the original Leon release, I'd say stick with that. There's just not that much difference in image quality, and the sound presentation isn't as strong. And if you don't have the original Leon release, I'd urge you to search it out.