A hitman living in New York, who keeps to himself and shows little emotion, suddenly becomes a guardian for a young girl, orphaned after corrupt D.E.A. officers murder her family. He teaches her the tricks of his trade and in return she helps him to explore his feelings. But when she goes to seek revenge she is captured and he must rescue her before the cops tie up their loose end. Will they live happily together now that she has given him a taste for life?
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Léon is acclaimed French director Luc Besson’s first film in an American setting. It stars Jean Reno in the title role, a Besson regular, having already appeared in his earlier films The Last Combat (1983), Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988) and Nikita (1990).
It was Reno’s role in Nikita which gave Besson the idea for Léon. He plays Victor the Cleaner, who appears to clean up the mess when Nikita’s mission goes wrong. Besson felt the character was underused and decided to realise his full potential by exploring the story of a ‘cleaner’. Coincidentally, the original title for Léon was “The Cleaner”.
Léon has so many great moments, including when Mathilda returns from the shop to find a man outside her apartment and hears a voice admonishing another for killing a little kid. She heads for the door at the end of the corridor, breaking into tears as she presses the buzzer, quietly pleading with Léon to open the door.
Of course he lets her in and this is the start of a strange but beautiful friendship. I love the feeling of tension this scene conveys to the audience; the cross-cutting, the music and the sense of urgency from Mathilda. Then there is a feeling of sheer relief when Léon opens the door and she is bathed in light, saved.
Another great moment is at the end of the film, when Stansfield assembles a team of police to launch an attack on Léon. In the ensuing great action scenes we fear this must be the end for Léon but he just keeps on fighting; now he has a purpose in life. After the police blow up, and smoke out, most of the apartment, there seems to be no escape. However, Léon cleverly disguises himself as an injured officer, complete with gas mask, and is led downstairs. Almost free, he stumbles, alone and wounded, towards the light outside. His POV shot here is wonderfully directed. He almost makes it out but is shot in the back by Stansfield. The camera, angled diagonally, slowly falls towards the ground. We hear piano keys, the camera wobbles for a moment, and then all is still. But Léon isn’t about to die without getting revenge for the young girl who changed his life. “This...is from...Mathilda” he says, placing something into Stansfield’s hand and closing it firmly. What could it be? Stan slowly opens his fist to reveal a pin, he then opens Léon’s jacket to find grenades strapped to him: “Shit” he says, before the explosion kills them both.
Our hero has fallen; his final word is “Mathilda”, the young girl who gave him a taste for life. A very powerful, non-Hollywood ending for the protagonist.
Natalie Portman gives an excellent performance in her movie debut. She was only 11 when cast and was originally turned down by the casting director for being too young. However, when she returned to the auditions and performed the scene where Mathilda laments the loss of her brother, Luc Besson was so impressed with her ability and depth of emotion that he gave her the part. Mathilda wants revenge on the man who murdered her little brother, the only member of her family she cared about. She believes this to be Stansfield but interestingly, her brother is the only one Stan didn’t kill personally. He was shot by Willie, one of Stan’s lackeys.
Norman Stansfield, possibly my favourite Gary Oldman character, is a deranged bent cop who pops pills, conducts Beethoven whilst slaughtering a family (a fantastic scene) and overreacts when his suit gets ruined. It is a coincidence that this character likes Beethoven when Gary Oldman played the man himself in Immortal Beloved, released the same year.
My favourite moment is when the old lady steps out of her apartment and tells them to leave Mathilda’s family alone. Malky calmly tells her they are the police and everything is under control but she persists. Stan then shoots the glass in the door next to her and shouts “He said go back inside!” with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Malky shakes his head and pushes him back inside Mathilda’s apartment, obviously deciding it isn’t safe to leave him alone. This sums up the character; you never know how he’s going to react, he is very unpredictable. One minute he is calm and in control, the next he’s exploding with rage and doing something crazy.
Léon has many childlike attributes and in comparison, Mathilda often seems more mature and assertive than him. His best friend is his plant, he thinks pigs are nicer than people and he gazes in wonder at Gene Kelly in roller-skates on the cinema screen. He drinks more milk than B.A. Baracus from The A-Team, another seemingly tough guy who is a big softie at heart.
Léon never refers to himself as a hitman, always as a ‘cleaner’, which has less menacing connotations. He also has the “No women, no kids” rule, which shows he has morals. However, he is not a nice man. He does kill people for a living. In the powerful scene where Mathilda spends her first night in his apartment we see him almost break his rule when he puts a gun to her head while she is sleeping. But ultimately he cannot go through with it. There is an internal conflict within the character.
I like the role reversal in terms of hero and villain. The cop, upholder of the law, would usually be the character we are supporting. However, he is corrupt and becomes the target for the audience’s hatred early on when he murders Mathilda’s family. He has no redeemable features except maybe the humour which emerges from his moments of sheer craziness. The hitman on the other hand, someone who would usually be the bad guy in the film, is instead the one we cheer on.
One of the film’s many strong points is its action scenes. They are stylishly directed, especially the awesome explosions, and never over-the-top. These scenes complement the calmer moments where dialogue dominates and they aren’t just thrown in for the hell of it. They manage to be thrilling without Besson feeling he has to resort to the far-too-common manic editing techniques some director’s use, which result in you not being able to see what’s going on and feeling dizzy. There is a sparing but calculated use of these scenes which makes them all the more powerful. They aren’t trying to make up for weak dialogue or plot, they have a purpose. (*Cough* Michael Bay, take note *cough*).
The soundtrack is another great element of the film which I feel is worth mentioning. Eric Serra provides a musical score which complements the film perfectly. He expertly helps to raise the tension in all the right places and adds emotion to the sentimental scenes.
According to the producer Patrice Ledoux, Luc Besson only intended for Léon to be a filler project. He had started working on The Fifth Element but Bruce Willis’s schedule meant that it wasn’t going to be released until 1997. Besson filled his time by writing Léon; it took him only 30 days and the shoot lasted only 90. I am so glad Bruce Willis is a busy man because not only is Léon a superior film when compared to The Fifth Element, it is also my favourite film. I recommend Léon to everyone. “What do you mean ‘everyone’?” “EVERYONE!”
Regardless of your taste in movies, I really believe you will find something here that you love. The performances, soundtrack, direction and script are all brilliant. It is Jean Reno’s best film, it is Natalie Portman’s best film, it is Luc Besson’s best film, I would even say it is Gary Oldman’s best film (and as my favourite actor, that is a tough decision to make because I love all of his performances). It just goes to show that if you want a job done well, hire a professional (yes I did steal that from the tagline).