Few performances are as pure and uncoached as Natalie Portman's in Léon: The Professional, Director Luc Besson's dramatic thriller about a hitman and his young protégée. Jean Reno stars as Léon Montana, an Italian hitman living in New York City. Portman is Mathilda Lando, a twelve-year-old girl who escapes being murdered by pure happenstance. When Mathilda flees her family's killers, Léon reluctantly provides her shelter in his humble apartment. Mathilda discovers his profession, and vows revenge if Léon will teach her how to kill. Moving and intense and with wonderful lead performances by Reno and Portman, this is Besson's best film to date. Sony's new 4K Ultra HD release offers excellent picture and sound, and features both the theatrical version and extended cut of the film.
Léon takes jobs from a Mafioso (Danny Aiello) and has a simple rule: "No women and no kids." Mathilda lives down the hall from Léon in a crummy apartment building, and has stopped attending class at a reform school for girls. Her abusive father (Michael Badalucco) stashes cocaine in his apartment for a crew of corrupt DEA agents, led by Normal Stansfield (Oldman), but gets himself and his family murdered by skimming from the stash. Léon does not welcome Mathilda with open arms, and would prefer she had never knocked on his door. But his moral code will not allow an innocent young girl to be killed, so he begins an awkward mentorship of sorts for the precocious Mathilda.
Although wholly original, Léon: The Professional is a thematic spin-off of Besson's earlier film La Femme Nikita, in which Reno appears as "the Cleaner." This truly is a masterful movie. Each scene feels completely necessary and integral to the story, and the theatrical cut in particular lacks any fat. The action sequences are like violent, choreographed ballet, and are both exciting and intense. This is a lean, utilitarian story that has surprising emotional heft thanks to Besson's writing and the masterful performances.
Reno gives his hitman a sympathetic, almost patriarchal slant. Portman is wholly believable, particularly when she challenges Léon with her developing emotions. Oldman is off-the-hinges crazy, perhaps his best side, and gives a livewire performance. Besson mixes touching melodrama (Léon and Mathilda's costume party) with cat-and-mouse suspense (Mathilda's botched hit on Stansfield) effortlessly. The film is both tragic and hopeful, and Léon knows he will not live to see whether Mathilda rises above the wreckage of her family life. Besson has made longer, more expensive and flashier films, but Léon: The Professional is his best. Expertly shot and marvelously acted, this is a must-own movie.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
This HEVC/H.265/2160p image is presented at the theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Culled from a new 4K master, this presentation looks fantastic and represents a substantial upgrade from the previous Blu-ray edition. When films are actually shot on film, as Léon was, the upgrade to 4K is often substantial, and this is one of the newest benchmarks in quality. There is fairly substantial grain throughout, but it is film-like and natural. Fine-object detail is immense, and texture and depth are superb during the entire running time. The costumes, sets and on-location scenery have never looked this good at home. The HDR pass offers pleasingly bold but lifelike colors, and black levels remain inky. Shadow detail is extremely impressive, and skin tones are accurate if slightly warm (as they have been on all previous releases). The source is clean and free of debris, and other than momentary aliasing in one darker scene, this is a top-tier image.
The disc features a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that I sampled in 7.1 Dolby TrueHD. Totally immersive and subtly effective, this surround mix features intense, directional sound effects and plenty of roving dialogue. Gunfire shrieks through the surrounds as crowd noise wafts around the viewer. Dialogue is clear and unobstructed by effects or score. The score is weighty and unspools luxuriously. There is not a hint of distortion or overcrowding. French and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are included, as are English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the 4K Ultra HD disc and a Blu-ray disc. The discs are packed in a black 4K case and an insert offers a code to redeem an UltraViolet HD digital copy. A slipcover with original theatrical poster art wraps the case. Both discs include the theatrical cut (1:49:27) and extended cut (2:12:57), which offers more character development. All the extra features are found on the Blu-ray: Ten Year Retrospective: Cast and Crew Look Back (25:10/SD) offers memories from an earlier release. Jean Reno: The Road to Léon (12:25/SD) is an interview with the actor, and Natalie Portman: Starting Young (13:50/HD) is about Portman and how she came to star in the film. Finally, you get a Fact Track that can play with the extended cut and the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:25/HD). Note that as of the time of this writing, this release is a Best Buy exclusive.
Luc Besson's dramatic thriller is expertly shot and acted, and looks spectacular on 4K Ultra HD. Featuring career-defining performances from Jean Reno and Natalie Portman, Léon: The Professional is intense and moving. Sony's 4K release offers excellent picture and sound, and represents a substantial upgrade over earlier releases. On the strength of the film and the A/V specs, I give this one my highest recommendation: DVD Talk Collector Series.