Digital French fries

“Bullets are a girl’s best friend,” states a blue-tinted, sexy video sleeve. Maybe the Magnum-toting superwoman isn’t a reality-based trend. Still, lead buttons of pain fired from a sniper’s rifle and shredding the air, heavy artillery and other explosive goodies packed in a duffel bag, elusive smiles and blushes; all are enduring qualities of the ladylike action heroine.

Now travel back nearly 11 years: Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait, shifting the Gulf War into full-throttle, and director Luc Besson, with the aid of his first wife, Anne Parillaud, brought the cinema world to a kneeling position.

In 1990, a young woman full with rage was taken into government custody and transformed into a passionate killing machine, decorated in a cocktail dress and red lipstick from a convenience store. She was called Nikita and so was the film (dubbed La Femme Nikita for domestic release). But, more importantly, Besson launched a genre of moviemaking that would forever mutate celluloid. His delicately constructed femme fatale, the fragile yet destructive girl named Nikita, became an American icon — even though her French tongue was subtitled for U.S. release.

The Point of No Return followed in Nikita’s footsteps, a remake borrowing Besson’s concept but filmed on a larger budget, with Bridget Fonda as the government’s favorite assassin. More gore, more bloodshed and much more complicated shoot-outs were concocted to entice American moviegoers. But the original French tale endures as a lighter, almost poetic vision of a bad girl with a gun.

Comparing the two DVDs side by side is the easiest way to realize the difference. Notice how in Besson’s version victims recover from their knockdowns and only enemies of the highest rank are served justice (their minions are just pushed aside). But when Fonda carries the rifle, bullets are embedded in skulls, invading each penetrated brain with unparalleled agony. Each villain’s lackey is shrouded in his own bodily fluids, splattered across cold kitchen tile; explosions, no matter the size of the barrel from which they emanate, are always Godzilla-sized.

Leon, another of Besson’s features, is just as romantic when dealing with violence. Ironically, when it was released in America in 1994, about 24 minutes of substance were trimmed, and it was consequently labeled The Professional. Rather than individual scenes getting cut, like in most other studio-spliced flicks, an entire section of the story was removed.

Luckily, Columbia TriStar has resurrected Besson’s lost masterwork, commemorating it with the “uncut international version” DVD. From the exhilarating opening credits to the deeply emotional conclusion, Leon can now be viewed on a digital platform in the States, eliminating the sale of fifth-generation video bootlegs and Japanese LaserDisc-DVD imports.

“(Leon is) not about violence — this movie is not about ‘kill ’em, bag ’em and get ’em scared in the audience.’ It’s about a love story,” co-star Natalie Portman explains in the DVD’s production notes.

Portman announced her talent to the world with her debut as 12-year-old Mathilda — and headlining star Jean Reno made his first big-budget appearance in an American feature. These two actors are the focus of Leon’s sensual Big Apple tale, blended with stylish action and fancy gunplay — and their chemistry as Mr. Hit Man and Little Ms. Hit Woman has never looked better than on this beautifully rendered wide-screen disc. When the complete 133-minute edition was released in France, it played on an around-the-clock basis to meet audience demand. And we can indulge in this triumphant digital transfer for merely $25 or less.

Besson’s latest, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, has also been graced with a DVD release. The “international” version of the 15th century epic is supplied in thrilling wide-screen and pounding Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. However, navigating both The Messenger and Leon’s interactive menus reveals one extremely disappointing fact: The “special features” menu is void.

Maybe the utterly elementary “HBO First Look” featurette might add some additional content to Messenger, but when boiled down to the core, it’s nothing more than a long promotional campaign for viewers to buy theater tickets. A more appropriate extra would have been alternate audio tracks with cast and crew members — specifically Besson — discussing the miseries, conquests and overall glories of making each film. By far, audio commentaries are the crowned king of DVD supplements, so any disc that lacks them is bare-boned, scraped all the way down to virtual marrow.

So the domestic release of both integral versions is a gratifying achievement — even if lacking in some departments.

Columbia even managed to squeeze the director’s cut of the 1988 feature, The Big Blue, onto DVD the same day as Leon. Considerably milder than his other features, Big Blue is still a highlight of what Besson does best: bringing to the silver screen an untouched realm — the sanctity of originality — absolutely unique in scripting, acting and visual elegance.

So whether the night calls for sci-fi exploits (The Fifth Element) or a sensual hit woman (La Femme Nikita), each DVD from French director Luc Besson is an entire entertainment platter bundled into one little disc — big guns, cool catchphrases and cocktail dresses included.

Jon M. Gibson writes about technology for the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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