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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Mathilda: Is life always this hard, or just when you're a kid?
DVD ReviewWatching mild-mannered, fastidious Léon as he putters around his rundown apartment, it's difficult to guess his line of work. He drinks milk by the quart, carefully presses his clothes and washes the leaves of his favorite houseplant with loving tenderness. But when duty calls, Léon is all business—efficient, focused, ruthless, unforgiving. The ultimate professional.
Léon kills people. It doesn't matter whom, as long as he gets paid. With cat-like grace and agility, he stalks his prey, pouncing only when sure of success. His targets never escape, and their retribution is always swift and final. He's that good. But when 12-year-old Mathilda knocks on his door seeking sanctuary from a brutal family massacre, Léon faces his first moral dilemma. Does he let the girl invade his privacy or turn his back on a child destined for destruction? Hit men rarely have hearts of gold, but there aren't many assassins like Léon.
More of a character study than an action film, Léon (a.k.a. The Professional) manages to smoothly unite the two disparate genres. Writer-director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) lends the film a distinct European flavor, despite its urban New York setting, injecting the relationship between Léon (Jean Reno) and Mathilda (Natalie Portman) with plenty of continental spice. A street-smart survivor, Mathilda also possesses coquettish qualities reminiscent of Nabokov's Lolita, and she romantically pursues Léon with a directness that shocks even his jaded sensibilities. She's also hell-bent on vengeance—not for her abusive parents and stepsister, but for her innocent four-year-old brother—and demands that Léon tutor her in the fine art of assassination. For if Léon won't bump off her brother's vicious assailants, Mathilda plans to do the job herself.
The film's mores may be international, but the action is all-American. Besson revels in Hollywood conventions, but resists the temptation to glorify gore. Léon racks up quite a body count, but keeps it well within the parameters of its quirky story. And though the violent confrontations fuel the film's engine, Besson rightly realizes the best action movies are character driven and spends a great deal of time developing and shaping the critical relationship between Léon and Mathilda. The investment pays big dividends. Their strong, poignant bond adds tension to the action scenes, raising the stakes and heightening audience involvement. In quieter moments, we see how Léon identifies with his young protégé and hopes to prevent her from repeating his mistakes. Even as he coaches Mathilda to be his accomplice, he strives to provide a steadying adult influence and unconsciously teaches values far more "normal" than what she gleaned from her conventional family.
This uncut version of Léon runs twenty-two minutes longer than the original U.S. theatrical release, and while we undoubtedly gain more insights into the characters, the pace does drag at times. I often carp that action unjustly takes precedence over subtleties, but in this case some judicious tightening would have better integrated the film's competing genres without sacrificing substance.
What cannot be improved upon, however, are the first-rate performances. Reno transmits a quiet authority that beautifully sets the film's tone. Whether gruff or gentle, he underplays to perfection, his weathered face displaying a range of elusive, conflicting emotions. Portman makes a spectacular debut, deftly balancing Mathilda's vulnerability and fear with the cocky confidence and pseudo-maturity born from her hard-knocks existence. Gary Oldman adds another creepily psychotic portrait to his villainous gallery and Danny Aiello does a good De Niro impression as Leon's paternal employer.
In Hollywood's action annals, there aren't many films like Léon. Its distinct style, off-kilter characters and big heart make it unlike almost any other action/crime film. Movies of this type rarely surprise, but Léon manages to raise our eyebrows without straining credulity. That's quite a feat for the genre, but getting to know Léon and Mathilda—and spy on their unique relationship—is what makes this film truly special.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Another entry in Columbia's popular Superbit line, Léon possesses the expected high degree of clarity and sharpness. Black levels are rich and deep, flesh tones look natural and no evidence of edge enhancement could be detected. While not a particularly colorful film, Léon accurately represents the harsh cityscape and dingy interiors. The transfer's weakest element is the source print, which exhibits more wear and tear than expected from a 1994 film and slightly tarnishes the strengths of the Superbit format. The imperfections noted in the review of the original DVD release of Léon, however, have been solved.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Another Superbit plus is the inclusion of a DTS track, although Léon doesn't take full advantage of the technology's capabilities. The DTS option still beats out its DD 5.1 counterpart, but the victory isn't nearly as decisive as usual. Subtle sounds remain more pronounced with DTS engaged and the music score by Eric Serra warmly surrounds the viewer. Action sequences, however, disappoint. Hearing bullets whiz across multiple speakers is one of the joys of owning a home theater system, but the gunfights in Léon seem firmly anchored in the front channels. The effects remain crisp and pronounced, but lack the intensity that films of this type usually provide.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
Packaging: unknown keepcase
Extras Review: Typical of the Superbit line, no extras are included, as disc space is designated solely for video and audio quality.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsAn affecting character study with action/crime overtones, Léon is difficult to categorize, but easy to love. Despite some graphic violence and heavy artillery, Léon is really a film of nuances and subtleties, and repeated viewings are required to catch and savor them all. The first-class Superbit treatment, with its superior image and DTS audio track, enhances the film's replay value and makes this the ultimate edition of Léon. Highly recommended.
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