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Leon: The Professional - Supreme Cinema Series
It's strange to look back on Leon: The Professional, a film which I love, from the perspective of a critic rather than a fan. There is a sense that every generation of film lovers believes that they're getting the short end of the stick, a concept that is both potentially true yet still exaggerated, even when factoring in mainstream cinema's current obsession with remakes, reboots, sequels, franchises, and adaptations. Still, it's interesting to consider that Leon does not have a traditional "hook." The film's success lies in casting and chemistry more than writer/director Luc Besson's surprisingly sweet story about a little girl and a deadly hitman. It's unlikely that a major studio like Sony would distribute the movie today: a complex and uncompromising film that touches on potentially uncomfortable territory with the belief that the audience will be smart enough to understand what Besson is going for (even given the fact that they cut most of that very material out when releasing it theatrically in the US).
Leon (Jean Reno) is a professional "cleaner", who gets his jobs from Italian restaurant owner Tony (Danny Aiello) and otherwise lives a very quiet life. Leon's only friend is a potted plant, and he sleeps with one eye open. Coincidentally, Leon happens to live next door to a man (Michael Badalucco) who works for corrupt cop Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Leon's neighbor has made the mistake of believing he can successfully skim some of Stansfield's drugs for his own profit, but Stansfield literally smells the guilt on him, and returns to the apartment and murders not only his stooge but also his whole family. The one survivor is Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who happens to be buying groceries when Stansfield attacks, and she is wise enough to slip down the hall to Leon's apartment and forces him, reluctantly, to open the door for her.
Leon is a little stunted; although he has plenty of clever instincts, he is not book smart, enlisting Mathilda to teach him how to read. Mathilda, meanwhile, wants revenge on Stansfield, and when she discovers what Leon does for a living, she attempts to hire him to do the job. When he refuses, she convinces him to teach her how to become a hitman herself. As previously mentioned, when Leon was released in U.S. theaters in 1994, it arrived with nearly a half hour of material cut out of it, trimming the emotional meat of the story away in favor of the action movie at the center. The studio, not unreasonably, had concerns the audience would be uncomfortable with the relationship that develops between Mathilda and Leon. Over the course of the film, a love blossoms between them, but it is neither a sexual love or a parental love. Although Mathilda thinks she loves Leon in the a more romantic sense, he dismisses that notion. Both Leon and Mathilda have been emotionally wounded, and both suffer from a certain alienation and loneliness. Together, they soothe the other's wounds, make the other party a more complete person. It's a complex, hard-to-define chemistry that owes plenty to savvy casting. Portman, who made her debut at only 11 years old in the film, displays the same kind of confidence and maturity that she has as an actor now, and the gentle innocence Reno brings is essential in conveying to the audience that their love is sincere but has reasonable boundaries.
Their work is matched by Gary Oldman as Stansfield, one of his most ferocious and terrifying performances. A lesser movie might spend more time definining Stansfield as the leader of a particular corrupt crew within the NYPD, but the fact that he's a police officer is merely symbolic of how untouchable he is and the amount of resources he has at his disposal. His crew follows his orders but appear to be just as terrified of his insanity as anyone else, leaning back when Stansfield pops a pill and rampages through the apartment where Mathilda's family lives, to the beat of classical music only he can hear in his head. The resulting carnage can't stain him, even as Internal Affairs attempts to investigate his methods, and in one of the movie's more intense scenes, he has a face-to-face with Mathilda in a police station bathroom where he looks at her as just another threat that he has no qualms about eliminating. Stansfield is not just corrupt, he's almost mythically heartless, and yet Oldman manages to find layers of malice and magnetism in what is essentially a one-note character.
Besson takes that unconventional love story and Oldman's overwhelming villain and weaves them into an impressive tonal tapestry that manages to be thrilling, funny, dramatic, tragic, and moving. As a director, he knows exactly how to blend the nearly cartoon logic of Leon's ability to do his job (as seen in the film's opening sequence) and Oldman's wild-man act with more grounded material, such as Leon's method for cheering Mathilda up after the death of her family, and the scenes between Leon and kind-hearted Tony, who has Leon's best interests at heart. The film is filled with beautiful widescreen photography of New York City, and stylish action sequences that have an operatic quality to them without muting their basic thrills. It's even more impressive when one considers that Leon was merely a side project Besson took on while waiting for The Fifth Element to get greenlit, a film which, had it been released first, would not suggest Besson had this level of control and restraint even given that movie's many pleasures. Both that project and this one are rooted in Besson's earnest, simple (but not simplistic) understanding of good and evil. Both are good movies, but Leon pulls off the more complicated feat, integrating Besson's almost fairy tale ideals with the real world, in a way that neither overcomplicates or corrupts them.
Although DVDTalk was sent the standard version of The Professional, I found out about it the day after I'd ordered the Supreme Cinema Series edition of this new release. Both discs are identical, but the standard version comes in a eco-friendly Vortex case with a glossy slipcover, while the Supreme Cinema Series edition comes in a special book package. However, this is no traditional digibook, but a special leatherish binding holding together two sheets of a Plexiglas-like material that serve as the front and back covers, and allow the artwork on the first and last pages to show through. Both the standard and SCS editions use the same image on the front, a capture of Leon and Mathilda walking down the street as they move to a new apartment. When sealed, the SCS edition has a paper J-card which has the title on the flap hanging over the front, and lists the specs on the back cover, but when opened, there is no title on the front cover, giving the package a certain stylish mysteriousness. The leathery binding features spot gloss in the shape of sniper rifles and bullet holes, the title in gold foil on the spine, and the glossy pages of the booklet feature an essay on the making of the film and some cast bios. The disc itself sits in a sleeve that makes up the last page of the book, which it slides in and out of easily. The back cover features an image of Mathilda pointing a gun. Both editions include a UltraViolet Digital Copy slip, which, when redeemed, will add both the theatrical and extended cuts to the account of the user's choice.
The Video and Audio
Leon was previously released on Blu-ray in 2009, using a transfer approved by Besson's company, Gaumont. Despite this seal of approval, the transfer was extremely garish, thanks to aggressive contrast boosting that crushed Leon's black coat and glasses and turned the tan walls of his many New York apartments a brilliant brownish-yellow. Given that Gaumont had signed off on the transfer, I hadn't expected it to get fixed.
Thankfully, Sony's Mastered in 4K process, despite not being enough of a selling point to sustain its own line of Blu-ray releases, has paved the way for the the Supreme Cinema Series and the accompanying standard editions, which boast new scans from the original camera negatives. The Fifth Element, which also received the same treatment, will always appear a tiny bit sharpened and soft thanks to a number of matte shots featuring computer graphics, but its' new 4K presentation still improves on depth and detail. Leon, comparatively, is a revelation, with its obnoxious appearance brought down until it resembles reality. Buildings in the New York City skyline that were previously blotted out of existence in snow-white skies are again visible. The texture and detail in Leon's coat reappears. Windows with daylight spilling in no longer sear the eyes, and the unintentional halos and sharpened appearance created by the boosting disappear. Skintones appear natural, and no banding or artifacting of any kind is noticeable. A beautiful, rich sheen of film grain is lightly visible throughout the presentation. This is an essential remaster for fans of the film, whether they splurge on the fancier deluxe edition or stick to the standard package.
Although the sound has also gotten an upgrade here to a Dolby Atmos mix, I have to admit I don't have the equipment to decode that track, or even the underlying 7.1, but even in TrueHD 5.1, Leon sounds more expansive, more nuanced on this new disc. Although the original Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack didn't have the kind of drawbacks that the picture did, but there's a crispness and clarity here to the film's action-packed soundtrack that wasn't there before. Even during the film's less explosive moments, there is usually some flourish of score or the sound of the city to help draw the viewer into the atmosphere of the movie, and when Leon is really going to work, especially in the movie's opening sequence, the track's surround directionality plays a big part in the action. Might just be good enough to prompt a surround sound upgrade. French 5.1 TrueHD, Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are also included.
This new edition of Leon offers the same extras as the 2009 Blu-ray, which were themselves a port from the 2004 2-disc DVD. They include both cuts of the film, a number of 10th Anniversary featurettes made up of then-new interviews with Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, and several other members of the cast and crew, although Luc Besson and Gary Oldman are absent. There is also a fact track, and an original theatrical trailer. DVDTalk has a full write-up of the extras here.
Leon is arguably the best film that Besson has made, and likely will make, a perfect confluence of idea and execution, casting and direction. He attempts a combination of elements that require just the right touch to make them work, and manages to pull it off. This new Supreme Cinema Series edition finally rectifies the near-criminal mishandling of the previous transfer, and is DVDTalk Collector's Series material in either the standard or deluxe edition.
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