Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman and Danny Aiello star in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, a go-for-broke thriller about a professional assassin whose work becomes dangerously personal. Calling himselfa "cleaner", the mysterious Leon (Reno) is New York's top hitman. When his next-door neighbors are murdered, Leon becomes the unwilling guardian of the family's sole survivor - 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman), but Mathilda doesn't just want protection; she wants revenge. Training her in the deadly tricks of his trade, Leon helps her track the psychotic agent (Oldman) who murdered her family.
French auteur Luc Besson may have gained international acclaim for 'La Femme Nikita,' cleaned house at the box office with his sci-fi smash 'The Fifth Element,' and had a hand in making Jason Statham into an action leading man with 'The Transporter,' but for me his pièce de résistance will always be 'Léon: The Professional.' Brutal, beautiful, and controversial, the film isn't just Besson at his best--it's cinema at its finest.
In New York City's underworld, Léon (Jean Reno) is a "cleaner," a professional hit-man for a mobster named Tony (Danny Aiello). Léon is the best assassin in the city, and routine, order, and simplicity have molded his way of living. Of course, being an efficient killing machine does come with one major drawback -- he's not much of a "people person." Aside from Tony and his short-lived clients, Léon is someone who has very little human contact. When his best friend is his houseplant, it goes without saying that social skills just aren't his forte.
Léon's simplistic lifestyle unexpectedly takes a complicated turn when a drug deal in the next door apartment goes sour. After the family is massacred by a psychotic lunatic (played by a devilish Gary Oldman), the only one left is twelve-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman). In a moment of kindness, Léon offers sanctuary to the young girl, and unwittingly invites in a whole heap of trouble in the process. Not only does Mathilda uncover what Léon really does for a living, she wants to become his student so she can have her revenge. As Mathilda's pain and persistence begins to wear down Léon's defenses, it isn't long before she's welcomed under his wing and into his heart.
Although 'Léon: The Professional' does share a few similarities with 'Nikita' ('Léon' was even inspired by Reno's "cleaner" character in that film), Besson crafts a tale that is entirely in a class by itself. The cinematography is simply brilliant, as the violent opening sequence locks in the electrifying tone for the picture. From then on, every action-packed hit is dripping with intensity, and the quieter moments in between are dreamlike and surreal. Virtually every scene is staged with such elegance and grace that it's hard to not be completely transfixed by this film.
Besson doesn't just captivate his audiences with soothing visuals, he also stirs the pot to make them restless in their seats. The backbone of the plot already pushes the morality envelope, as a pre-teen is being trained to kill in cold blood. But Besson goes one step further, placing the relationship between Léon and Mathilda in an area completely clouded in gray -- essentially creating one of the most unconventional love stories ever told. There are times where their screen time together is delightfully charming, and other instances where it starts going down a more disturbing path. While this may have crossed the line for some viewers, the intent was to create tension and ruffle a few feathers, and in that regard Besson hits a home run.
There is also a great deal of depth provided by its three unforgettable performances. Reno really is at the top of his game here, juggling the two very distinct personalities of his character with dexterous precision. In "serious" mode Léon is experienced and confident, but when he's outside of his comfort zone he morphs into a shy and timid creature. Then there's Gary Oldman as the nut job villain Stansfield. While he doesn't totally steal the show (which is good since this is supposed to be Léon and Mathilda's story anyways), he fully embraces his despicable role, and his portrayal is so unnerving that the rattled expressions on the actors playing his own goon squad just had to be genuine. Last and certainly not least is Natalie Portman, who gives such an endearing performance in her feature film debut that it's utterly mind-blowing.
If you haven't already guessed, 'Léon: The Professional' is one of my all-time favorite movies. Between Luc Besson's unique vision and the impeccable performances of the cast, this is a powerful film where style meets substance in perfect harmony.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony brings 'Léon: The Professional' to high-definition on a dual-layered BD-50 Blu-ray Disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. After a brief loading screen, the disc boots up right to the menu without any annoying promos. Both the Theatrical (109 minutes) and Extended (133 minutes) versions of the film are included via seamless branching. The latter adds a great deal of additional footage on the growing bond between Léon and Mathilda, as well as expands on her assassin training. The U.S. version of the Blu-ray is also reported to be region free and should function properly in any PlayStation 3 and standalone player.
The Superbit DVD of 'Léon: The Professional' was already a visually impressive disc, and the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1 aspect ratio) encode of this Blu-ray release gives yet another noticeable boost to Besson's classic film.
Although there's a slight softness at times, the image is usually very crisp with sharp edging and attractive depth. Colors are warm and vibrant, and the bright greens of trees and Léon's houseplant are especially striking. Black levels are also respectable, but there's some mild crushing and loss of fine detail in areas where lighting is poor. Contrast runs hot in places, occasionally making skin tones appear slightly golden, although this only really occurs in the opening hunt for the "fat bastard." Close-ups of faces reveal skin pores, stubble, and wrinkles in delicate detail, and the textures of clothing and objects have strong definition as well. Even Léon's dilapidated apartment has its own personality, weathered with an intricate network of cracks, dirt, and grime.
A thin layer of grain remains intact over the picture to retain a consistent film-like appearance, and while there's the odd speckle here and there, there doesn't seem to be much in terms of digital noise, DNR application, or edge enhancement. All things considered, Sony delivers another fantastic catalog transfer that should easily satisfy most home theater enthusiasts.
Presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound with Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms mixes (er... I mean English, French, or Portuguese mixes), 'Léon: The Professional' is easily one of the top sounding catalog titles I've encountered on Blu-ray.
Reno does mumble his way through a couple of lines, which is hardly the fault of the soundtrack, but other than that conversations are always crisp, intelligible, and appropriately balanced with the rest of the mix. The action sequences deliver excellent dynamics and use each speaker to their full potential. Gunfire is riveting, and powerful bass tones are spread across the floor, especially during the handful of explosions. In the quieter scenes, surrounds are just as aggressive, providing noticeable discrete effects and neighborhood ambience for a wide open soundfield. The ethereal score by Éric Serra also flows effortlessly to envelope the viewer with haunting instrumentals. In short, 'Léon: The Professional' comes nowhere close to sounding amateur.
Additionally, the disc also includes optional English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles.
Most of the supplements included on this Blu-ray release have been ported over from the Deluxe Edition DVD released by Sony back in 2005.
Move over Beethoven and Mozart, French filmmaker Luc Besson has conducted his own symphonic masterpiece with 'Léon: The Professional.' Between its slick writing, melodic direction, and trio of scene-searing performances, it's the type of film that just seems to hit all of the right notes. Although this Blu-ray recycles many supplements from previous DVD releases, fans can now enjoy either version of the movie via seamless branching. Add in excellent video and one of the best lossless audio presentations for a catalog title to date, and this disc is well worth owning. Highly recommended.