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LEON (THE PROFESSIONAL)

Review by Alex Haberstroh

Stars:  Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello
Director:  Luc Besson
Dolby Digital 5.1,
English 2.0 Surround
Video:  2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  133 Minutes
Release Date:  August 15, 2000

Film ****

I first saw the directing ability of French writer/director Luc Besson when I attended a showing of Fifth Element.  Besson, a master performer, juggled mind numbing special effects, a moving sci-fi story, and seasoned actors, flawlessly.  Truly, Besson’s ability to portray the scope and grandeur of earth 300 years from now was nothing short of mesmerizing. 

Captivated by Besson’s style, I picked up a copy of The Professional, a quiet little film released in 1994 about a New York City “cleaner,” or “hit man,” who works for the mafia.  The story is nothing short of compelling.  A twelve-year-old girl (Portman), whose family is murdered by a truly malignant DEA officer (Oldman), seeks revenge and is taken under the care of the reluctant Leon (Reno), who teaches her the skills she needs to exact revenge.

Although the original story was great, I had heard reports that the new “international release” was the full version of the movie that originally cut twenty-four minutes due to time constraints.  For this newer version, the film not only received a new Anamorphic transfer that looks stellar, but more importantly, it shows the viewer the precious twenty-four minutes of footage.  While enamored of the original cut, I can say that the “uncut” version is, hands down, superior to the previous “American release,” as it adds scenes that flesh out both the characters and their motivations, that were only previously alluded to before.  In toto, in this version you understand why the movie is truly a modern masterpiece.

But the success of both versions of The Professional is also due not just to Besson’s story, but also to the acting.  Relatively unknown in America at the time, Jean Reno plays the title role of Leon brilliantly.  His expressive facial movements and body language are able to convey an incredible array of emotions, from chilling your blood as a cold-blooded assassin, to showing true emotional innocence and weakness.  Natalie Portman in her silver screen debut also delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mathilda, a young girl wise beyond her years, that’s a far cry from her more recent films like Where the Heart Is.  During the film, Portman makes an incredible transition from a terrified child to a vengeful young woman whose insatiable need for revenge makes her desperate need for Leon’s love seem all the more believable.  Finally, Gary Oldman proves once again that he is one of the best villains out there, providing an awe-inspiring performance as the psychotic corrupt DEA officer Norman Stansfield, an absolute embodiment of evil.

As the film is much more understated than the later Fifth Element, I was surprised by critics who labeled it incredibly violent.  Truth be told, the film does have violence in it, and in some parts, quite a lot.  But what surprised me was that critics didn’t realize that the violence in the film is not its focus.  In some sense, The Professional is really a romance film hidden by the guise of an action film.

The core of the story of Leon is the concept of need.  In the beginning of the film, Besson shows what the character Leon has become: a cold-blooded killer who “cleans” and does jobs as easily and routinely as you or I would throw out trash.  Leon, especially judging by his spartan apartment, really needs nothing.  On the other hand, the character of Mathilda couldn’t be any more different.  From the very start of the film, it is clear that she is in need of many things, but especially a family where people will love her and not physically abuse her.  But while the movie starts off with two people so completely different, throughout the progression of the film to the emotionally raw climax, Besson shows that true love sometimes is just two vulnerable people protecting each other against all the evil and hate in the world. 

Video ****

While the older release consists of both widescreen and pan & scan formats of the film, the newer “uncut” version includes a nicely done anamorphic transfer.  I noticed no grain and was especially pleased that this film, one of the first on the DVD format, was gone back to and given the Anamorphic transfer it deserved.                    

Audio ****

The audio for the newer release is offered in DD 5.1 and 2.0 like the originally released version, but the 5.1 track has been newly remastered, making it sound crisper than the older release.  The DD 5.1 mix is subtle for most of the film, providing clear dialogue in the front soundstage and music through the rear, but rises to the occasion for the action sequences in the movie, performing precisely and aggressively.

Features ***

The supplements provided surpass the original release as well. Provided are an isolated music score for composer Eric Serra who later did the soundtrack for Fifth Element, and an international ad campaign, which was shots of the ads and posters for the movie throughout the world.  Also included were theatrical trailers, talent files, and production notes.  I would’ve liked a director’s commentary by Besson, since he directed and wrote this film and could’ve provided great insight.  

Summary:

In conclusion, The Professional provides not only action but also a powerfully executed tale of romance that will move you almost beyond words.  Highly recommended.