The film that arguably brought Luc Besson to a wider audience outside of his native France, Leon is the story of a hitman in New York. He leads a solitary lifestyle working as a ‘cleaner’, primarily for local mafioso, Tony (Danny Aiello).
Leon’s life is changed when his neighbours’ family is killed by a psychotic, corrupt DEA agent called Norman Stansfield, played brilliantly OTT by Gary Oldman. In a rare display of empathy for a hired killer, Leon takes in the only survivor of the massacre, 12 year old Mathilda (a pre-Star Wars Natalie Portman) who quickly decides she wants to follow in Leon’s footsteps and become a fellow ‘cleaner’.
The two strike up an unlikely friendship, with Leon becoming an unlikely father figure to Mathilda, who helps out by cooking, cleaning and teaching Leon to read. In return, he teaches her how to handle a rifle as she is determined to get revenge for the death of her baby brother, the only member of the family she loved, and sets her sights on Stansfield.
The film is a tense urban thriller and the feeling of plight for Mathilda only serves to draw you in that little bit further.
Jean Reno offers an understated, likeable performance as the socially awkward assassin, with Leon spending his days exercising, tending to his beloved houseplant and watching old musicals. In the film’s other lead role, Natalie Portman gives a great performance as the young hitwoman and the relationship between her and Jean Reno’s Leon is pitch-perfect, expertly treading the fine line between a father daughter relationship, rather than being drawn into Mathilda’s Lolita-like fantasies.
Gary Oldman’s Stansfield is a bit of a marmite character. I personally love his performance as the deranged, out of control antagonist.
It’s a polished, slick film that does a wonderful job of being funny one minute, heart warming the next and unbelievably tense following that. It takes a special talent to take the viewer on a journey like that and, for me, this is Besson at his best. His filmography, to date, has been mostly a downward spiral post Leon.
It’s not without its awkward moments. I find certain aspects of Leon a little uncomfortable in places. Mathilda is still a 12-year-old girl and some of the situations she is involved in during the film are a little tough to watch. Without ruining the end for those that haven’t seen it, it’s a great ending, and justice is well and truly done, although the inclusion of Sting on the closing credits is somewhat questionable…!
The transfer to Blu-ray struck me as a little odd. The film looks great in places, especially during Natalie Portman’s opening scene. Yet in others it looks overly grainy and the increase in quality is barely noticeable over my bargain basement DVD version of the film. Strangely, it seems to improve as the film progresses, with the last 45 minutes of the film looking superb.
The film, however, sounds great with Dolby 5.1 but it’s tough to recommend stumping up the cost of a Blu-ray for improved quality sound alone.
Extras are a little thin on the ground. The disc also features the theatrical cut of the film, which runs around 20 minutes shorter than the so-called International version. There’s a Cast and Crew lookback, titled ‘Ten Year Retrospective’which makes this documentary almost six years old, and most likely a recycled extra from a previous DVD release and looks poor compared to the HD movie.
In-depth interviews with Natalie Portman and Jean Reno are interesting, but they feel very much made-for-TV as the picture quality is similarly low-rent. There’re no audio commentaries on offer, and that really is it for the extras.
It’s hard to recommend Leon on Blu-ray. The picture quality is certainly improved over a DVD, but I’m not sure it is worth the near twenty quid Blu-ray asking price. If you own it on DVD, I would say keep your money in your pocket. If you don’t own it, then go for it.