Leon is a reserved, but meticulous hitman who lives a life of discipline and solitude carrying out the Italian mafia’s dirty work. His life of simplicity comes to an end, however, when Mathilda, his 11 year old neighbor, shows up on his doorstep after her entire family is murdered in a drug conflict involving Stansfield, a corrupt DEA agent. With revenge in her heart, Mathilda convinces Leon to take her under his wing and train her to “clean” so that she can avenge her family and kill Stansfield. Leon is surprised when Mathilda naturally takes to the training, but their relationship becomes complicated when her attraction to him evolves into something much less innocent. As Leon struggles to quantify his relationship with Mathilda and stop her from letting revenge consume her, Stansfield moves closer to finding them both in his attempt to tie up loose ends.
Leon: The Professional is a smart, and exciting action film with great moments of stealth combat mixed with heart-pounding gunplay, but where it really excels most is in it’s depiction of the unusual relationship between the two main characters. Despite, or perhaps because of their age difference, Mathilda and Leon perfectly compliment each other in the film and watching them play off one another in the more intimate moments adds that human element that many lesser action films tend to gloss over or omit completely. There is an undeniable and purposefully uncomfortable sexual tension that forms between the two, but the film deals with it in a sophisticated manner and prevents it from ever crossing the line into the taboo. As loneliness brings them together, Mathilda begins to develop feelings for Leon that are sexual in nature, but limited by her child-like grasp of what love truly is. Leon on the other hand keeps Mathilda mostly at arms reach and sees himself more as her protector and father-figure. Though Mathilda’s general intelligence and upbringing make her mature for her age, Leon’s strict and isolated lifestyle leave him with a child-like innocence, and the two almost meet somewhere in the middle, making their relationship believable, but never perverse. The pitch-perfect performances from Reno and Portman make it clear that although Leon is in charge when the bullets fly, Mathilda is in control on an emotional level when the two are alone.
The superb performances from the cast are really what elevate Leon above a typical action flick. Portman’s portrayal of Mathilda in particular is quite impressive given the emotional range the character demanded and how young and inexperienced she was at the time. Reno’s subdued performance as the naive, yet deadly Leon is also noteworthy, as is Oldman’s wickedly eccentric portrayal of the drug-abusing DEA agent with an affinity for classical music. If any of these actors were replaced, Leon would be a very different and decidedly less effective film.
Also worth mentioning is the way the film thematically explores the motivations behind, and consequences of, taking human life. Whether it’s for business like Leon, revenge like Matilda, or corruption and greed like Stansfield, the cost of killing ultimately proves something too great to bear, even for the professionals. At a first glance, the film does seem to glorify violence with it’s excessive, sometimes over-the-top firefights, but the message is ultimately the same: when you take a life, it takes something from you. Director Luc Besson’s stylish directing and knack for character really shine through and tie the themes, characters, and plot together seamlessly making Leon: The Professional an incredibly entertaining and poignant action film.
Leon‘s Blu-ray debut is as professional as its title implies. The 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is quite impressive; the blacks are deep, the colors are vibrant, the flesh tones are true to life, and the overall image is sharp. Save a slight layer of noise that plagues several low-lit shots throughout, it’s a near perfect transition that looks fantastic. The gritty New York setting was a perfect choice for the story and is really brought to life, particularly in the sniping scene where Leon and Mathilda setup a sniper’s nest overlooking Central Park with the cityscape towering over them. The director has a way of capturing the vast beauty of New York while contrasting it with the tight, claustrophobic spaces that exist within.
Like Leon himself, this soundtrack kicks ass and takes names later. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack makes every crack of a gunshot or explosion tear through your living room making you feel like you’re the one being hunted down. The atmospheric city sounds are also represented nicely and the dialogue levels are well balanced which is nice considering Leon has a tendency to talk in whispers most of the time. Perhaps the only problem I have with it is that the musical soundtrack to the film feels a little dated at times.
There’s not quite enough materials here to make you a cleaner like Leon, but it’s not a bad start. In addition to both theatrical and extended versions of the film to choose from, there are a handful of featurettes that offer behind-the-scenes access to the making of Leon. All in all, there is about 60 minutes of special features:
- 10 Year Retrospective: Cast and Crew Look Back
- Jean Reno: The Road to Leon
- Natalie Portman: Starting Young
- Fact Track (random tid-bits that appear during the film)
The extras are a little light by today’s standards—it would’ve been nice to have a commentary track, some deleted scenes, and maybe more on-set behind-the-scenes footage—but there’s still plenty here to keep you occupied for awhile. Even though the featurettes are very cast-centric, the interviews are passionate and above all interesting so none of it ever feels like filler.
What can I say? Leon the Professional has always been a classic in my book, and it’s release on blu-ray just makes it all the more enjoyable. The film delivers with well-executed pulse-pounding action, but still maintains its heart and depth via the unique characters and first-rate acting. Whether you’ve seen it a hundred times or not at all, it’s absolutely worth owning on Blu-ray.