This week, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released Leon: The Professional on Blu-ray, and because I have the best job in the world, I got to watch it for this column. The truth is that this was a formative movie for me, not only augmenting my budding cinephilia in terms of attention to and interest in strongly visual filmmakers, but in understanding the technical and artistic value of widescreen cinema. Before the film was released on widescreen VHS and later, DVD, I watched the pan-and-scan version when it was first released on video and almost got sick from the cropping and scanning of director Luc Besson's balletic camerawork.
Thankfully, I never have to watch it via that sort of butchered presentation again, and even if you don't think the movie is a masterpiece, at the very least, SPHE's new Blu-ray offers a gorgeously rich transfer that fully celebrates Besson's cinematography. But even though this is a film I've revisited several times since its original release in 1994, I was curious to see how well The Professional would hold up some 15 years later – which brings us to this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released on November 18, 1994, The Professional (as it was called in the U.S.) was Luc Besson's Hollywood real Hollywood breakthrough after helming La Femme Nikita and the French films Subway and The Big Blue. Although it received zero nominations from stateside critics groups, the film was nominated for seven Cesars (the French Academy Awards), including best music, best actor for Jean Reno, best director for Besson, and best picture. Ultimately the film only grossed about $20 million domestically, but it still maintains a respectable 74% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. And of course, it introduced the world to Natalie Portman, whose performance as Mathilda is still one of the best in her entire career.
What Still Works: The relationship between Reno's Leon and Portman's Mathilda cements the film's more visceral elements and truly elevates what could have been standard-fare (or even superlative) action to something more substantial. Besson has always been more of an intuitive and emotional filmmaker than an intellectual one – the them of his follow-up, The Fifth Element, is unapologetically "love conquers evil" – but here he perfectly balances the sentimentality of their budding bond with the harsh and inescapable realities of what Leon does for a living.
Remarkably, however, Besson creates one really fascinating scenario after the next, not only as a set piece to thrill the pulse, but one after another that focuses and utilizes the little character details that are introduced throughout the film. For example, Leon's ongoing fitness regimen comes into play when he's suspended over the doorway in a hotel room where he's being attacked; or although Leon develops a great sense of humanity through his interactions with Mathilda, he also gains literacy, which helps him deal with Tony (Danny Aiello), much to Tony's chagrin. At the same time, these little details aren't overstated, nor are the backgrounds and back stories of the characters, so that when Tony mentions Leon's troubled history with women, it conveys his emotional immaturity without needing to provide a concrete description of how and why he ended up in the states as a hitman for an Italian bookie.
What Doesn't Work: Surprisingly little, although anyone who was already troubled by the film's vaguely romantic coupling of Leon and Mathilda will be no more reassured 15 years later. Some of this is emphasized in the extended cut (which with the release of this Blu-ray is for the first time available on the same disc as the theatrical version), but in both, Besson doesn't skirt the idea that Mathilda has been forced to grow up faster than she might be ready for, which is why she seems to be exploring her budding womanhood when she talks to Leon – which produces appropriately outrageous results.
But the subtle examination of this mentor/ parent-child/ romantic relationship is just one part of the film, and the movie is fairly clear in suggesting that such a coupling would be inappropriate – not the least of which because she often seems more mature than he does – and rescues the film from turning into something other than a redemption story for these two characters.
What's The Verdict: As Leon or The Professional, Besson's film holds up beautifully, not only from a thematic and emotional standpoint but technically: in every frame of film, you can see that Besson is a born filmmaker, creating a fluidity and a beauty in his set pieces that emphasizes both the energy of the sequence and its emotional foundations. Personally I think that the two versions are equally good, if only because as interesting as the sequences are of Mathilda and Leon actually doing jobs together, the extended cut runs a little bit long and seems unnecessary in telling the core story of Leon and Mathilda's relationship with one another; but as a quasi-irresponsible tale of a little girl who becomes a hitman or a hitman who regains his humanity with the help of a little girl, The Professional is a truly fantastic film, and still one of my all-time favorites.