Directed by Luc Besson (Nikita, The Fifth Element), Leon: The Professional is a great piece of action film-making. With a deft hand, Besson folds the action scenes and the infatuation of a 12 year old girl into an immensely watchable piece of cinema. It is uncomfortable to watch sometimes, but it is well worth the effort.
When corrupt DEA agents led by Stansfield (Gary Oldman in one of his missed over the top roles) murder Mathilda’s family, Mathilda narrowly escapes by being let into Leon’s apartment. In her grief, she convinces Leon to train her to be a ‘cleaner’, which is a hitman. He reluctantly agrees, and a relationship forms between the two. For him, it is a father daughter relationship. For her, it is infatuation with an older, mysterious man. At least that is the way that I see it. The film is intentionally vague on his feelings and is open to your interpretation.
As the film progresses, she convinces Leon to ‘clean’ the men who killed her family, which culminates in one of the greatest action sequences of the last 20 years. It is not filmed Michael Bay shakey-cam style where you can’t see anything and run the risk of losing your lunch. It is not edited like a music video. You see where everyone is and what they are doing. In today’s day and age, they seem to be afraid to let you see the fights. That wasn’t the case when this was filmed and it is refreshing.
The performances are wonderful all the way around. Jean Reno brings a quiet calm to his performance. He also bring a self consciousness to the role as a French immigrant working for the Italian mob. From the way he dresses to the way he carries himself, he is only confident when performing a hit.
A 12 year old Natalie Portman, one of the biggest stars in the world now, plays almost the exact opposite of Reno’s character. She is a confident, independent 12 year old who knows what she wants and won’t stop until she gets it. That is on the outside. You can see in the performance that she is no where near as confident as she seems. She is scared and grieving and needs the kind father figure that Leon provides.
As the villain of the piece, Gary Oldman brings the intensity and craziness that he used to be known for. Reminiscent of Sid and Nancy and True Romance, there is a thinly veiled insanity and ruthlessness to his performance. He is like a viper, ready to strike at any time. He is frightening to watch, and he is able to amp up the tension by his minute actions alone.
The video quality is well done here. While it is not a perfect cleanup, it leaves a nice film grain that I feel really enhances the film. The colors are bright and the blacks are black. I think this is as good as the film has ever looked and is as good as it ever will.
The audio track really shines, especially in the high action scenes. There is a nice separation in the 5 speakers and you will hear the gun shots ricochet and zoom past your head. The dialogue is crisp and clear and never overshadowed but the action scenes.
This disc contains both the theatrical cut of the film and the extended cut. ( I am reviewing the extended cut, as the director intended.) There are also numerous special features including a 10 year retrospective, a Jean Reno featurette, a Natalie Portman featurette and a fact track exclusive to the extended cut of the film.
When I initially watched this film in the ’90’s, I wasn’t a big fan. I think I just wasn’t prepared to accept what the film actually was. Having not seen it in at least a decade, I decided to give it another shot and I am glad I did. From the performances to the story that will not be pigeonholed, this is a wonderful action film that should have a larger following than it does. I urge you to give this a chance. While it is not the best action film, it is damned good; the opening action sequence and the closing sequence are absolutely amazing.
Movie ***out of ****
Blu-Ray *** out of ****