Released in France as “Leon” and in the U.S. as “The Professional,” Luc Besson’s stylish film about a hit man and the young girl he trains is now available in a two-disc “deluxe edition” which combines the titles and offers some decent ten-year retrospectives.
There’s a scene in “Leon, The Professional” where 12-year-old Natalie Portman sits with her legs drawn up, looking downcast and a lot like Anne Parillaud did in Besson’s earlier film about professional killers. But that’s no surprise. In “La Femme Nikita” (1991), Jean Reno played “The Cleaner,” an Italian hit-man who inspired this spin-off. Besson fans will recognize a number of similarities and probably argue which film is better. For me, it’s no contest. Parillaud was believable-but-ordinary as the pouty, drugged-up, semi-psychotic, 19-year-old killer who was spared prison to become an assassin. But the story was familiar and the characters not all that complex, until Nikita fell for a grocery clerk and discovered her “normal” side. On the other hand, Reno and Portman deliver compelling performances throughout this odd tale of a couple New Yorkers who, at times, seem like the two drifters from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” In that novel/film, a man who’s a little “slow” is cared for by his friend—only in “Leon,” that dynamic shifts in interesting ways, and is all the more fascinating because the “slow” one also happens to be a cat-like assassin who drinks milk and pounces from the shadows.
At first, it’s Mathilda (Portman) who needs looking after. Near the film’s beginning, she returns from an errand to find her apartment door open and killers hovering over the bodies of her parents and siblings. Not missing a beat, she walks to the end of the hall and rings the bell of the trench-coated Italian man who has always been kind enough to pay attention to her. When the already-peeping Leon ignores his instincts as a professional killer and opens the door to this softly crying and pleading pre-teen, he also opens the door to a life-changing experience. She’s going to be a handful, and even he knows it.
The complexity with which Reno plays this simple man is nothing short of amazing. Their relationship starts with him as the reluctant protector, then a kind of indulgent surrogate father, next a teacher, then a pupil, and finally a kind of Clyde to Mathilda’s Bonnie, with Mathilda looking out for him almost as much as he does her. There’s “Lolita”-like tension, but also an innocence and nobility that Vladimir Nabokov’s hero and heroine never approached. We learn in one of the extras that Besson complained to his casting director that the 15 and 17 year olds he was sending his way were all wrong. “You send me the girls who know sex. I want the girl who thinks she knows sex.” And Portman perfectly conveys this in her very first role. It’s her character’s desire for vengeance that drives the plot, and her developing crush on Leon that changes their relationship. There are both tender and bizarre moments, as when Leon, coaching her the way a proud father might, helps her pull the trigger on a rifle with scope as the pair lie on a rooftop overlooking Central Park. “Pick someone out,” he tells her, but no women or children. “The jogger,” she says, and under his direction squeezes the trigger.
Like other Besson films, style encroaches on reality, with a number of scenes seeming artificial or contrived. Yet, his sense of scene, his tight editing, his integration of music and fusion of comedy, poignancy, and all-out action, coupled with strong performances, are so engrossing that at some point you shrug, Who needs reality?? And face it, in every action film, viewers have to suspend belief at some point in order to enjoy the circumstances that usually blow way out of proportion.
That point in “Leon” comes with the antics of Gary Oldman, who’s a goofball villain every bit as psychotic as the one he plays for Besson in “The Fifth Element” (1997). As a crooked, drug-popping Fed, he’s both hunter and hunted in this film, and yet, despite his wacked-out behavior, seems above suspicion. But if you suspend belief, his performance adds another texture to this multi-layered film that builds in suspense. You want a climactic ending? Baby, you got one, with Leon on board.
I haven’t seen the first dvd release, the uncut international edition, or the superbit version to compare them, but the transfer on this one—presumably the director’s cut, because it logs in at 133 minutes instead of 109—is quite good. The picture, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen Technovision, was mastered in High Definition, and the delineation is sharp. I’m guessing it’s the same transfer as the superbit, partly because it’s so clear, and partly because www.superbit.com is listed right under www.SonyPictures.com on the box specs, with no further explanation.
This was Besson’s first film in English, and the soundtrack options are English Dolby Digital 5.1 or English DTS. There’s a little more clarity and back-speaker pop with the DTS, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 is also very good. There’s plenty of resonance, and the infrequent explosions really vibrate with sound. Subtitle options are English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. No complaints here!
Though the production team that put together a disc of extras caught people at a single sitting for an interview, it’s refreshing that there’s no overlapping. It’s fitting that there’s an extra on “Natalie Portman: Starting Young,” since this was her first film. We learn that Portman auditioned for the part when she was only 11, and that her parents negotiated with the director to minimize suggestive scenes and insisted that Mathilda quit smoking during the film. And they nixed a scene where Leon was to accidentally catch Mathilda in the shower. Portman appears on-camera in a recent interview and talks about that very important first film and the affection she felt for Reno (she still has a clay head she sculpted of Reno while in Paris, where the interiors were shot), with the focus on “Leon” rather than anything she’s done since. It’s all very fascinating—as is the 10-year retrospective, which features Portman as well as Reno, Besson, his casting director, the costume director, the actors who played her parents, and the man who plays the “mark” in the opening scene. A bonus is Maiwenn, the director’s girlfriend at the time, who reveals that without the guns this is basically her story. It turns out that she met Besson when she was 12 and fell in love with him at 15, so she’s not shocked at all by the love Mathilda feels for the older hit man. Fans of Reno will appreciate the retrospective of his own career leading up to the performance he considers his best, even including photos of him as a young boy. The “fact track” is also fun, providing interesting background notes. It turns out that Liv Tyler auditioned for the role of Mathilda, but at 15 was considered too old for the part. Portman apparently loved to play Scrabble between shots, and Oldman scared the crew because he showed up “in character,” so he was never disturbed. There aren’t many pop-ups during high-action moments, but who needs them then? There are also some pretty random facts, like “The New York City subway was first opened on October 27, 1904. One hundred and fifty thousand people paid a nickel to ride it on Day One,” which you’ll either find interesting or so irrelevant that they make you laugh. In the in-between department? The plant that Leon tends was called an Agleonema. AgLEONema. Get it? I’ve seen better packages of extras, but these features are still pretty engrossing.
For an action film, “Leon, The Professional” has style to spare. The shoot-’em-up scenes may be slightly familiar, but Besson’s feel for character and his flair for camerawork (he frequently shot behind a camera himself) make this film one you almost wish wouldn’t end. It marks a high point in Reno’s career, and a starting point for Portman—which makes it a must-own for fans of either.