Luc Besson classics – “The Fifth Element” and “Léon: The Professional” – score on 4K
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
"THE FIFTH ELEMENT: 20th ANNIVERSARY EDITION"
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital HD copy; 1997; PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, some sexuality and brief nudity
Best extra: 4K exclusive "The Director's Notes: Luc Besson Looks Back"
"LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL"
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital HD copy; 1994; R for scenes of strong graphic violence and profanity
Best extra: Two versions (Theatrical and Extended Director's Cut) on the 4K disc
HONESTLY for twenty years, I've struggled to watch director Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element." I wasn't alone.
Besson recalls in the 4K featurette "The Director's Notes," during one of the original screenings, 30 people stood up and left the theater, when a towering, blue alien diva started singing an operatic number. "To them it was too much. They didn't know if it was sci-fi, or action movie or what," he says.
The French press also wasn't kind, calling the movie an American Film. It took the young French director by surprise, since it had been filmed at the famed 007 soundstage at Pinewood Studios in England. Then, when it opened in the U.S., "The Fifth Element" was considered too European, and received mixed reviews. New York Times' critic Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Besson directs with ceaseless flamboyance."
Today, "The Fifth Element" has aged like a bottle of fine French wine, and is highly praised within the sci-fi genre. Earlier this year, the Taste of Cinema website ranked the film the best of Besson's earliest works – even topping "Léon: The Professional" and "La Femme Nikita." They call it "relentless and manic inventiveness."
Besson, who crafted his first draft as a teenager, credits the Internet and the global community, with making it more accessible. Over the two decades, the worldwide box office has nearly topped $240 million.
Still, when the 4K disc arrived for review, I was apprehensive about how I would perceive the film. I popped the disc into the player and, once past the opening credits, I became engaged with the storyline and visuals. It was as if a veil had been removed and I was watching "The Fifth Element" with fresh eyes. And let's face it, 4K is perfect for this ahead-of-its time flick.
Filmed on 35mm, then scanned and mastered in 4K, the picture captures every single component within the film structure and texture. There's also the added bonus of High Dynamic Range (HDR), which makes it even better.
The natural film grain (sourced from the Super 35 technique – 2.40:1 aspect ratio) is completely intact, creating a slightly larger grain. Sharpness is superb, evident during the opening scene set in Egypt 1914, where the four stones representing the elements (earth, air, fire and water) are stored. It easily leaps past the Blu-ray, also sourced from the same 4K master. Plus, the natural facial toning, wider spectrum of colors and the boost in contrast, with its deep, detailed shadows and brilliant and controlled highlights, give it a complete WOW factor. The only ding is the old school special effects, composited from two film elements, which produce a slightly softer image.
Audio on the 4K and Blu-ray both include the all-expansive Dolby Atmos track that fully encompasses the listening environment, with the Oscar nominated sound effects and the fabulous score from French composer Eric Serra. Serra has written all the music for Besson's films.
Besson spent $90 million to create the sights and sounds of flying cars, spaceships, villains, marvelous stunts and one amazing heroine, honing shades of Fritz Lang's German "Metropolis" (1927) and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982).
It quickly jumps to the mid-23rd century world of Brooklyn cab driver Korben Dallas, a former military officer played by Bruce Willis. At the time, he was the No. 1 box-office star, and Besson was worried, since he only envisioned Willis for the role. If the actor turned it down, the project was more likely dead. "He got the script; he read it right away and he said, 'I'm in,'" Besson recalls.
Besson wasn't particularly impressed with Milla Jovovich's original screen test for the role of flame-haired Leeloo, who holds the keys to save the universe. He felt the Ukrainian born supermodel was "too nervous and wore too much makeup." A month later Besson spotted her at a hotel in a T-shirt, jeans, no makeup and ponytail. "She was much more relaxed; we had a drink and talked." She agreed to do one more screen test.
Besson developed a 400-word vocabulary using Greek and Latin for Leeloo's ancient language, which Jovovich and Besson used to communicate with during production, leaving the rest of the crew and cast in the dark.
Gary Oldman, who co-starred as psychotic detective Stansfied in "Léon: The Professional," was cast as the sinister Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. "He was the most talented actor on Earth," Besson says, admitting he was so taken by one of Oldman's performances, he kept asking for more takes even though the actor had already nailed it.
Besson also reveals how his older sister's homework on Plato and the fifth element was the inspiration that got his script off the ground after two previous false starts. The enclosed Blu-ray houses the remaining eight featurettes, all carried over from previous editions.
"Léon: The Professional" has also gotten the 4K white glove treatment from Sony, giving this urban thriller and its Manhattan backdrop a sharpness and glimmer never seen before in home viewing.
It was originally captured on 35mm film (2.40:1 aspect ratio), using a Technovision anamorphic lens, which amplifies the traditional cinematic experience. The HDR coding gives cityscape exteriors and apartment interiors a darker and more balanced exposure. Highlights are clearly more controlled, and the colors dialed toward normalcy away from the excess orange cast, which plagued the Blu-ray at times.
Just like "The Fifth Element," the 4K and Blu-ray are encoded with the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which accentuates the spraying bullets and Serra's pulsating, percussive score.
This is the violent and emotional story of an uneducated and skillful "cleaner" or professional hitman, who finds himself reluctantly in charge of his tough, 12-year-old neighbor Mathilda. She is wonderfully played by Natalie Portman in her first major role. (Don't miss her audition tape featured on the enclosed Blu-ray.) Her parents were set against her taking the role and demanded Besson accept their conditions, especially regarding scenes involving cigarettes.
"Is life always this hard or is it just when you're a kid?" Mathilda asks. "Always like this," Léon responds. He is played by French actor Jean Reno, in his fifth Besson film.
Mathilda is just returning from the grocery store, when corrupt, pill-popping DEA enforcer Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his gang wipes out her dysfunctional family including her beloved 4-year-old brother. She wants revenge on the "dirtbags" that killed her brother and becomes Léon's protégée, referencing Bonnie and Clyde, and Thelma and Louise, who didn't work alone.
The enclosed Blu-ray features three standard-def featurettes with cast and crew interviews, including Reno and Portman, and an enjoyable, informative Fact Track on the Extended Cut. Trivia highlights how many of the interiors were actually filmed in Paris, except for the interior and the roof overlooking Central Park from the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street. Mathilda's apartment was a real apartment on 103rd Street, and her haircut was inspired by classic Hollywood star Louise Brooks.
It's no accident Sony has released these two films just before Besson's highly anticipated sci-fi adventure "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" gets its public premiere July 21. These two, fine-looking 4K discs will prepare viewers for Besson's latest thriller.
― Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer