Firstly, the technical stuff. As we would expect these days, Leon comes to Blu-ray with a theatrically correct 2.35:1 1080p transfer. In order to truly rate the picture and sound I fired up my existing DVD copy of the longer cut in order to compare the two. This was primarily because on first viewing of the Blu-ray it did not look to my eyes anything out of the ordinary.
Comparing the two directly shows that whilst the Blu-ray is clearly superior, it is not the gigantic jump over the original that some may have hoped. This may be down to the age of the film, or the way it was shot, but having recently reviewed Highlander (which shows just what can be achieved with an older film) I can't help but feel slightly disappointed when firing up this disc.
The first thing to say is that the source is certainly not pristine - but this is not something that can be remedied without a full re-mastering job. There are elements of dirt and scratches on the print, which were present on the original DVD version and are still here on the HD version. These are not ever excessive, and certainly not as bad as some HD transfers I have seen, but they are present.
The Blu-ray certainly does display an increased level of detail, that should be expected. The perfect example is the first scene. The camera moves down a New York street, with the twin towers dominating the skyline in the background. Every grimy part of the surroundings stands out clearly and precisely, the detail on the car number plates clearly visible, and the depth of the transfer is obvious.
We then cut to Leon being given a contract by his boss. This scene is shot very close up, and the detail in the lit cigarette, and the lines on the faces, is all clearly delineated and obvious. There is absolutely no problems with the level of detail.
Leon is shot with quite a muted colour palette. The setting is grimy New York, and the apartments and corridors are all shot through with muted browns and very little colour. These are all brought to life extremely well in hi-def, but it is never going to pop out with a broad colour palette. The only real contrast to this is Mathilda's colourful outfits, and the greens of Central Park on one of the training missions. These do rather lack the vibrancy that one might really expect, failing to truly jump off the screen.
There is no problem with the black level, however. The blacks are deep and dense, and the perfect example is when Leon is lurking in shadows at the beginning of his first hit. The shadow is intense, and you see nothing of Leon, even though his arm is holding the knife to the man's throat in the foreground.
To sum up, there is definitely an improvement over the DVD version, but the picture is not one that you would use to truly demonstrate your viewing screen for your friends. The improvements over the DVD version are likely to be noticed by true aficionados of the film, those coming to the film for the first time are likely to be less impressed. The BD of Leon certainly is the best version you can presently buy, that is for sure, but whether it is worth an upgrade is a more difficult question. I would probably expect that real fans would want to pick this up for the improvement, but others may be happy sticking with their existing DVD upscaled.
Leon comes to Blu-ray with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The sound mix is certainly a solid effort, and again it's an improvement over the DVD version, but it is absolutely not reference material.
The dialogue is clearly planted in the centre, and despite the age of the track, is always clear and precise. You never need to manually adjust your system in order to clearly hear what is being said.
The front mix has a nice separation to it, without ever being particularly expansive. Ambient street noise is heard from left and right, and in the restaurant scene where Mathilda first tries to seduce Leon you can clearly hear the voices of the other diners coming from the right and left.
The problem with the mix lies in the use of the rears. They are very sparsely used indeed, and rarely kick into any kind of co-ordinated action. When they are used, it seems to be for an un-directional kind of background noise, without any clear steering to the left and right. This has to be marked down as rather a disappointment, which is probably down to the original source rather than any deficiencies in the mastering process on the disc. It is probably preferable to have the mix this way than to have the track artificially enhanced beyond the director's original vision.
Like the picture, then, the sound is probably about the best that could be achieved without a full re-mastering job. It is a definite improvement over the DVD version, but is certainly not the stunning mix that one might expect.
Previous versions that have appeared on DVD have had very few extras included, so it's nice to see that Optimum have included a fascinating bunch of extras for the Blu-ray release. There is still no director's commentary included, and in fact Besson does not appear at all during any of the extra material. But this is a perfect example of how to produce a decent package without the director's co-operation.
We start with a 25 minute documentary called the 10th anniversary retrospective. This brings together most of the major players from the film (minus Besson and Oldman) and interviews them about the process of filming. It is very interesting stuff indeed, featuring some revealing and previously unseen on set footage. We meet Besson's girlfriend of the time, who apparently met him when she was 12, and she regards the film as being about her. We also get to hear some interesting stories including when a gun accidentally went off during a key moment.
We then have a very interesting 13 minute interview with Natalie Portman, who addresses complex issues, and talks about what her parents insisted were cut before they would let her do the film (including a nude scene, apparently). It is a most fascinating insight into her mindset at the time of filming, and she even talks about working with guns at a time just after Brandon Lee had been shot on set during The Crow. A most fascinating interview.
This is followed by a similar interview with Jean Reno which tends to focus more on his history, almost like a mini biography. Possibly slightly less revealing than the Portman interview, this is still very interesting viewing.
The package is rounded off with a theatrical trailer. Sadly, the international ad campaign, and the isolated musical score from the DVD are both missing.
Leon is a bona fide classic of the cinema and as such we should celebrate its arrival onto Blu-ray disc. Complex and multi-layered, it is a film that really should be in every self respecting film fan's collection. If you are yet to own a copy, then the availability on this disc of both versions of the film, and the exclusive extras make this a definite purchase.
However, if you already own the disc on DVD, then the decision whether to upgrade is not as clear cut as it might have been. The AV on this disc is solid without being spectacular, and the advantages over upscaling DVD are not as massive as you might expect. However, the presence of both versions of the film on one disc, and the extras that have been created exclusively for this version are probably just about enough to make it a recommended upgrade.
It should be noted that the pre-release copy that turned up for review was coded region B only, and was not playable in a US player. We can only assume that this will be the same for the retail disc.
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