The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - LEON: DIRECTOR'S CUT (1994) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - LEON: DIRECTOR'S CUT (1994)

leon the professional review
25th anniversary restoration of Luc Besson's thriller.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Luc Besson

Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello

leon the professional blu-ray

Nabokov meets Kalashnikov in Luc Besson's Leon, newly restored in 4K here for its 25th anniversary release by Studiocanal. It's now a stark reminder of a lost era when Hollywood was willing to invite filmmakers from Europe and Asia to take the controls of what Orson Welles called "the world's greatest train set" while maintaining the distinctive visions that made them so successful in their native lands.

In Besson's case, his particular obsessions were over the top gun play and underage girls. Leon sees him combine the two as the titular reclusive hitman (Jean Reno) reluctantly takes a precocious 12-year-old girl, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), under his wing when her family is slaughtered by crooked DEA  agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman).

leon the professional review

Like the films of Godard, Truffaut and Melville before him, Besson's movie sees a Gallic filmmaker channeling their love of American genre cinema while infusing their movie with a decidedly European flavour. On its release, Leon was like no other Hollywood action movie of the era. As Tarantino had done a couple of years earlier with Reservoir Dogs, it drew patrons into theatres with the promise of an action fest, but instead gave them an intimate character study. Unlike today's Hollywood action movies, which pile empty spectacle upon empty spectacle in a pathetic bid to placate the masses, it made mainstream moviegoers better film viewers.

[ READ MORE: Blu-Ray Review - The Dark Half ]

Aside from its opening, which introduces us to Leon, a European hitman now plying his trade in New York for mobster Tony (Danny Aiello), as he goes about his trade in his silent but deadly manner, and its explosive climax, there isn't all that much action in Besson's movie. Rather the bulk of the narrative is devoted to the burgeoning relationship between Mathilda and her adopted mentor. Leon is reluctant to shelter Mathilda at first, and even considers shooting her in the head as she sleeps. Prior to her arrival, the only emotion Leon showed was not to another human, but to the plant he dotes over in his apartment window.

leon the professional review

Mathilda's affections are initially misplaced, confessing that she's "in love" with Leon, and in the director's cut, even asking him to take her virginity. In the latter scene, Leon placates the child by telling a story of how a woman broke his heart long ago in the old country and he has never been able to give his love to anyone else since. We don't really buy the story though - Leon is as virginal a child in his own way as his young apprentice.

Leon does grow to love Mathilda, but not in a Humbert Humbert way; rather it's the love a grumpy old man might develop for a cat that keeps appearing at his window every morning. So too does Mathilda begin to love Leon, but in the truest, emotional sense, not the confusing, sexual manner she's read about in her older sister's magazines.

[ READ MORE: Blu-Ray Review - And Soon the Darkness ]

The sincerity invested in their characters by Reno and Portman is what allows us to overlook just how ridiculous a yarn Leon really is. Take away their tender performances and the movie becomes an over-the-top cartoon, as exemplified by Oldman's hysterical, coked out turn as one of the most evil villains of '90s cinema. At times however, Besson's misjudged sense of humour gets in the way of his film's poignancy, as when a shocking child murder is followed up by an insensitive bit of comic shtick involving a senile, elderly neighbour.

leon the professional review

Leon's influence on the cinematic landscape of the subsequent decade can't be overstated. Action movies became a lot more focussed on style than on explosions, with filmmakers drafted into Hollywood from across Europe and Asia to add their own vision to otherwise generic pictures. Portman became one of the biggest stars of the era, while characters in blockbusters were rewritten as French to accommodate the casting of Reno. Perhaps the biggest influence came from Eric Serra's score, a mix of brooding cacophonous percussion and tango that became the staple sound of action movies in the following years, while also inspiring a wave of lounge music that would provide the soundtrack for every pretentious coffee house in the '90s and '00s.

Reno was a Hollywood regular for a while, but he'll always be known for his role as the hitman who grows a heart. Portman might be an award-winning A-lister now, but have any of her adult performances ever rivalled her debut (Mathilda crying outside Leon's door when she realises her family has been massacred is the highlight moment of her career)? Besson has certainly never bettered his first crack at American filmmaking.

The option to view either the somewhat rambling director's cut or the more tightly paced theatrical cut; a retrospective from 2004; featurettes on Jean Reno and Natalie Portman; interviews with Reno and composer Eric Serra.

Leon: Director's Cut is on blu-ray, DVD, 4K UHD and EST November 11th from Studiocanal.