When people think of director/writer Luc Besson nowadays, it tends to be in fond remembrance of the kind of films he used to deliver when he was on top of his game. In recent years, he’s delivered critically panned films like “The Family,” “Lucy,” and “The Lady,” while helping to pen the scripts to other disappointments like “Colombiana” and the last two “Taken” films. Way back when he first got started, he began as all filmmakers do, with small films that showed off his talent behind the camera. In his case, Besson started getting noticed with films like “Subway” and “Le Femme Nikita,” but it would be his 1994 crime drama “Leon: The Professional” that would truly get his name out to the public.
Not only that, but it would go on to become one of his most highly-regarded films among audiences. Sadly it was not thought of nearly as well by critics, merely receiving somewhat average reviews, giving us another sad oversight similar to what would happen to his outstanding “The Fifth Element” later on, proving that there are those times where the general audience can have more perception into a film than those that analyze them for a living.
As the film opens, we meet our first main character, Leon (Jean Reno), a hitman who is extraordinarily good at his job. We watch how he is able to take down a small army of people guarding just one man, all by using stealth and, of course, a few weapons. At the end of his work day, he comes home to his apartment, where he lives next to a family that consists of a father holding drugs for someone, a wife, and three kids. When the father is unable to explain what happened to some of the drugs, he is paid a visit by Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and some of his men, who proceed to kill everyone in the apartment.
Luckily, 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is out shopping at the time. As she comes home, she passes right by the men guarding the door to her apartment and decides to take refuge with Leon, who shows he’s not completely cold-hearted by letting her in. It doesn’t take Mathilda long to learn what Leon’s profession is, which gives her the idea of becoming a hitman as well in order to get revenge on those that murdered her family (more specifically, her little brother). Leon reluctantly agrees to train her, but as it turns out, it’s going to be a harder job than she thought, especially since Stansfield and his cronies work for the D.E.A.
On the surface, “Leon: The Professional” may just seem like another action film to some people, but in fact, it’s about much more than that. Indeed the action is very well done, particularly when it comes to the opening and closing sequences. The opening job that Leon caries out creates a vast amount of tension as he slips all around taking out man after man in his pursuit of simply delivering a message, while the big climax does much of the same, except by now we’ve come to care even more about the characters involved. However, the main concentration of the film, and indeed its very heart, is the relationship that is forged between Leon, a kind of recluse whose main focus is his work, and the young Mathida, who is forced to do a lot of growing up in a short time in order to help carry out the revenge she seeks.
It’s the kind of relationship that is fascinating to look at from either side. Leon, as we learn, has had love in his life, but ever since it went badly, he has been married to his work, living by himself and hardly ever giving a thought to anything else. When he lets Mathilda in his apartment, in a way he has taken responsibility for her, forcing just as big a change in his life as has occurred in hers. Eventually he starts sleeping in a bed (as opposed to sleeping in a chair with a gun on a nearby table) and even learns to read with Mathilda’s help, all of this on top of having feelings for someone once more, a notion that must seem other-worldly after having put them aside for so long.
From Mathilda’s point of view, she sees Leon as a savior at first, but then as someone who can help her in her desire to kill Stansfield. However, she also develops romantic feelings for him as well, which we’re not entirely sure are genuine or just the result of him being the one who saved her life (or perhaps him being the conduit through which she can exact her revenge). Either way, it adds another complex layer onto what is already a strange relationship, one where you’re never really sure what is going to happen next, turning it into what is easily the story’s most intriguing element.
The trio of actors leading the film also deserves a large chunk of the credit, for without them, this is a tale that could have easily seemed half-hearted or sadly insincere. Believe it or not, this was Natalie Portman’s film debut, and what an incredible debut it was. She embodies Mathilda marvelously, going with the twists and turns of the character naturally, delivering a performance that feels nothing short of genuine. Renowned French actor Jean Reno also makes his mark, delivering the cool, brooding hitman side of the character, while also flowing very well with the unexpected changes that Leon goes through. Of course, the always-amazing Gary Oldman must be mentioned as well. We all know that he can play one hell of a villain, as we’ve seen in “The Fifth Element” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” but as Stansfield he is able to go more nutty than usual. However, it’s not even in a particularly outlandish kind of way. He internalizes much of it, but still comes off as though he is completely out of his mind, leaving us with yet another Oldman character that you wish you could see more of simply based on how fascinating he is to watch.
When you take a closer look at “Leon: The Professional,” it’s really not that hard to see why it has the reputation it does as one of Besson’s most beloved films. It’s an intriguing character piece that also delivers on the action that one would hope for from the titular character’s occupation. When combined, you have a film that is satisfying to those who want to be thrilled and those that are looking for a little more substance. When you get the best of both worlds, plus a trio of great performances, who could ask for anything more from a film like this?
“Leon: The Professional” comes to Blu-ray in a special edition which features a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that has been remastered in 4K. The picture is absolutely stunning, and while it may contain a little bit of noticeable grain due to it being an older film, it does nothing to hurt the beautifully sharp image. The Dolby Atmos audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue, score, and sound effects in outstanding quality. Overall, fans will not be the least bit disappointed with the incredible treatment that Besson’s classic has received.
10 Year Retrospective: Cast and Crew Look Back (25 Minutes): A fantastic look back at the making of the film, featuring interviews with Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, and several members of the crew.
Jean Reno: The Road to Leon (12 Minutes): An intriguing featurette that explores how Reno got into acting and how he became the titular character.
Natalie Portman: Starting Young (14 Minutes): An interesting featurette that focuses on Portman taking on the role of Mathilda. Includes her original audition tape.
Fact Track: A neat trivia track that can be played during the extended cut of the film.
“Leon: The Professional” is a wonderful character study, enriched by outstanding performances, thrilling action, and a well-rounded script that gives the film an intriguing amount of depth. It may not be much to those who take it at face value, but for the more discerning viewer, it’s a rewarding experience that continues to be hailed as one of Luc Besson’s best films. Whether you’re discovering it for the first time or revisiting it yet again like so many of its fans, this special edition Blu-ray is easily worth adding to your collection.
Now available on Special Edition Blu-ray.
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