Leon: The Professional 20th Anniversary Blu-ray review

Review Ryan Lambie 10 Feb 2014 - 06:10

As Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional celebrates its 20th birthday, along comes an Anniversary Blu-ray edition. Ryan takes a look...

One of the most oft-filmed cities on the planet, New York takes on a renewed sense of the exotic in Luc Besson's 1994 action drama, Leon: The Professional. Accompanied by Eric Serra's imaginative score, Leon's opening shots of Manhattan in the summer - a disembodied camera floating over the Hudson and Central Park - make the place look almost otherworldly.

This is entirely in keeping with the title character Leon (Jean Reno), a childlike foreigner who moves from apartment to apartment like a ghost, seemingly unnoticed among the city's bustle and thrum. An Italian migrant, Leon works as a contract killer for Danny Aiello's mafia boss Tony, who runs his operation from a restaurant in Little Italy. A solitary figure, Leon's only friends are a pot plant, which he diligently places on the windowsill each morning, and the imaginary characters in the Hollywood musicals he watches at the cinema. At night, Leon sleeps bolt upright in a chair with a gun by his side - a sad, lonely man if ever there was one.

The central character's diametric opposite is Stansfield (Gary Oldman), a corrupt DEA agent whose angry slaughter of a dysfunctional, abusive family in a neighbouring apartment results in surviving 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) taking refuge with Leon. The pair strike up an uneasy friendship, with Mathilda teaching Leon to read while Leon reluctantly agrees to teach Mathilda the tricks of the contract-killing trade.

Containing the rhythmic comic book violence and surface sheen of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (which first introduced a less detailed version of Reno's character), Leon is also an effective dramatic triangle. Strip away all the gunplay and colourful secondary characters - the various henchmen, cops, hoteliers and mafia types - and you're left with a lean drama containing little more than three main players.

Jean Reno turns in a magnificent performance as Leon - mumbling over his few lines, Reno's turn is almost like that of a mime artist. Although an effective killing machine, Leon walks with an odd, awkward gait like Charlie Chaplin's The Tramp. His back story, only loosely sketched in by the script, is all there to see on Reno's expressive face: by turns sad and wide-eyed with wonder, he's as much a lost innocent as Mathilda.

In her film debut, Natalie Portman shows remarkable composure and confidence. As the smarter, more cunning half of the screen pairing, she shows a precocious talent in terms of drama (look at the way she tearfully recites the line about a member of her late family - "She was only a half sister, and not a good half at that") and comedy (the bit where she gives  an indignant look, before firing a gun out of an apartment window).

There's less subtlety to be found in Gary Oldman's performance as Stansfield, but his Beethoven-obsessed maniac really is something to behold. Possessed with a furious energy, Oldman gives the impression that Stansfield could literally explode at any moment. Oldman's no-holds-barred performance mirrors the more cartoonish excesses of Besson's script, which asks us to believe that a group of bent cops could gun down an entire family (including a four-year-old child) in a crowded New York apartment block without any apparent witnesses, and only a casual investigation from Internal Affairs.  

It has to be said, too, that the depiction of Leon and Mathilda's relationship tips over into the unseemly at times, particularly in the Director's Cut. The defence, perhaps, is that Leon doesn't represent a threat to Mathilda because he's more of a child than she is in many respects. Whatever Besson's intentions were in the film's more difficult scenes - particularly one in the longer cut where Mathilda professes her love for Leon - there's one thing that saves them from being entirely objectionable: the sensitivity of the performances.

Jean Reno is utterly believable as Leon, who's locked into a lonely servitude by the Mafia and only taught how to live like a human being by  Mathilda. Mathilda, in turn, can't help but be awestruck by an adult who, unlike her violent dead father, is gentle and trustworthy. For all its faults, it's the warmth of these leading performances - not to mention Gary Oldman's unforgettable baddie - that make Leon: The Professional a memorable, superbly-made action drama, even 20 years on.

Leon: The Professional 20th Anniversary Steelbook Edition is out on Blu-ray now.

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Disqus - noscript

The so-called extended 'director's cut' of 'Leon' is nothing of the sort, the theatrical version was and remains Luc Besson's preferred version, the extended cut was just a quick way to mop up some extra cash from the film's French fanbase, released in only a handful of French cinemas in summer 1996 for that sole purpose, Besson approved of and participated in the extended cut, but he has stated the theatrical version is the definitive version of that film... and I agree.


Definitive or not, I do on the other hand prefer the longer cut!
Does the Blu-ray have both cuts on it?

Personally I preferred the 'version intégrale' longer cut, more Matilda and Leon. I understand that some scenes made the American test audiences squirm so they were removed.

león the profesional a classic movie jean reno best performance nikita a great movie victor the cleaner an amazing movie character

I swear you can see Oldman actually chewing on that word as he says it. An absolute, A-Grade nutter of a performance.

Um.. is English your first language?

I believe it does. From what I understand, it's the same as the previous blu-ray release; just in a fancy tin.

I too prefer the extended version. But then any more time with these characters is a bonus. This has to be one of my favourite films.

león the profesional and jean reno are a international language check out jean reno new revenge movie on DVD a great movie

I still remember the first time when I saw this and was blown away by how good it was, Gary Oldman chewing all the scenery he can, I love the scene when he is Walking around the apartment shooting the family to the music of Beethoven going on in his head and then explaining to the father about classical music, genius, Jean Reno as well is so good in this, along with Natalie Portman one of cinemas great pairings, I just cannot believe it has been 20 years, wow.

Besson's initial theatrical cut only differed in one specific scene from the version released in cinemas in 1994; the scene near the end where Mathilda asks Leon to be her first love and he refuses... the American test audiences were deeply uneasy about that scene (although I think they totally misunderstood it) and Columbia asked Besson to remove it, he didn't have to because he had final cut but voluntarily did so to make the film's commercial chances easier.

Longer cuts don't necessarily make a film better - 'The Abyss' and 'Kingdom of Heaven' the only two exceptions I can think of - there's good reason why Besson cut much of the extra material out of 'Leon' and he was right to do so; the theatrical version is tighter, more concise, perfectly paced, and much more focused, whereas the longer version is just that... longer, but certainly not better! There's simply no way Leon would ever have taken Mathilda to a hit (the deal was for him to teach her to use a gun to avenge her family not anything else), Besson probably thought so too and that's likely the reason those scenes were cut in the film's initial post-production process... a pity he felt the need to reinstate them!

This all just my own humble, subjective, fallible opinion of course... but then again, I'm in the minority who thinks the 'Lord of the Rings' theatrical versions were (largely) the better versions compared to the monstrously indulgent and overlong extended editions.

So sue me.

I watched it just this weekend funnily enough. I remember thinking it was an amazing, sophisticated film when it came out, but jeez - it's borderline ludicrous to watch now - some really awkward dialogue and odd story beats.

I think this is mainly down to the extra footage in the directors cut, which most of the weirder stuff comes from - I haven't seen the theatrical cut in a long time, but remember it seeming better paced and less bonkers.

Mathilda was hot. I would.

Okay that's weird I was watching this a few night back! Easily one film I would recommend to anyone to at-least give it a watch!

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