Leon shows Mathilda the ropes.
By Rob Wolejsza
with Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated R. 133 minutes
By the time Luc Besson's "The Professional" was released in the U.S. in November 1994, it had already become a blockbuster overseas, specifically in Besson's native France, where it played in round-the-clock showings to meet public demand. Though it didn't have quite the box office success in America that it found across the Atlantic, the film found a fervent cult following thanks to home
video and the power of word of mouth. Its combination of gritty, violent action; well-drawn, multi-faceted characters; and unique central relationship seemed to leave a great impression on all who saw it.
It was that unique relationship, however, which gave "The Professional"'s U.S. distributor, Columbia, a case of cold feet. For the U.S. release, Besson was forced to cut nearly a half-hour of material from his film, material that was deemed in questionable taste for American audiences.
For six years since its initial release, fans of the film (present company included) have waited anxiously for the so-called "integral version" to make it to these shores intact. (There was a Japanese import laserdisc released here several years ago, but its exorbitant price tag sadly put it out of reach for most.)
Well, the wait is over, and I must say, it was worth it. Just released on DVD this week under it's original, more poignant title, (and in an absolutely gorgeous new transfer) "Leon" is ready to be rediscovered by its fans, who can now see it as Besson intended.
The story by now is well known: Leon (the great Jean Reno) is a perfect assassin living and plying his deadly trade in New York. A breathtaking early scene shows him efficiently dispatching the gun-toting staff of a drug dealer; he drops from the ceiling, pops out from behind doors, and seems to have a supernatural inclination toward stealth. Leon is good at what he does, but the business of killing doesn't lend itself to much of a social life.
Then Leon meets Mathilda (future Skywalker matriarch Natalie Portman, in her film debut), a 12-year old girl who lives down the hall from him and has a seriously dysfunctional family life. When her parents and two siblings are exterminated by a ruthless, and possibly insane, DEA agent (Gary Oldman at his scene-chewing best) Mathilda runs to Leon for protection. But once Leon agrees to take her in, he finds that he's responsible for her safety. Thus begins an odyssey from one rundown NYC location to another, as Leon and his young charge try to stay one step ahead of Oldman and his crew.
This is all in the version seen by U.S. audiences. The U.S. release also touched on the growing, and complicated relationship between Leon and Mathilda, who claims she's falling in love with him. Touched on, but did not delve into.
European audiences got to see several other scenes involving these two characters, including one in which Mathilda all but asks Leon to have sex with her. I can
understand how Columbia would be skittish about showing this sort of thing in a mainstream movie, but it's actually very tastefully done, with Leon gently turning the young woman down.
There are other scenes here that serve to deepen the relationship between Leon and Mathilda. An extended sequence, for example, showing Mathilda joining Leon on some of his rounds, and even joining in, as Leon teaches her the ropes.
And there's a very funny dinner scene where Mathilda gets a case of little-girl giggles while Leon looks on helplessly. Reno's reactions (or lack thereof) in this sequence are priceless. These extra scenes also serve to fill up some plot holes that ocurred when the film was cut for U.S. release.
The effect is that the story is actually strengthened, which shouldn't be much of a surpise considering this is how Besson wanted the film to be seen in the first place.
The bottom line here is that, unlike some extended cuts (The Blues Brothers comes to mind) where extra material doesn't do much to improve on the original film (and only makes it drag out longer), the extra stuff in "Leon" helps flesh out the characters a bit more. At the end, I was surprised to find how much more I cared about Leon and Mathilda, even though I'd seen "The Professional" several
times. With this beautiful new release, a great film is made even greater, a difficult feat indeed.