Directed by Luc Besson.
Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and Natalie Portman.
A professional hitman takes under his wing a twelve year-old girl and trains her in his job.
Léon may be an English speaking film set in New York City, but it has a distinctly European feel to it which can be attributed to director Luc Besson. The action (which is used sparingly) is incredibly stylish, but the film is more interested in exploring the emotions of the titular character rather than big bangs, blood and bullets. It is the unforgettable characters that make Léon not only a great action film, but also a superb drama.
Léon (Jean Reno) is a professional hitman who tries to live a quiet life outside of his job, yet is plagued by paranoia. He sleeps in a chair and is seemingly always prepared, perhaps even expecting, to be facing the wrong end of a gun barrel. Léon’s life is altered when his neighbour falls foul of a group of corrupt DEA agents led by Stansfield (Gary Oldman), with the only survivor being the neighbour’s quick-witted twelve year-old daughter Mathilda (Natalie Portman). She turns to Léon for help, and upon discovering his profession begs to be trained so she can enact revenge.
The morals of Léon are murky at best, but it is the unlikely friendship struck up by the ageing hitman and the young Mathilda that give the movie its lasting appeal. Reno is great in the role, but it’s the young Portman – here in her feature film debut – who really commands attention. While both excel, none can compare to the sublime Oldman, portraying a drug-chomping crazed loony with utter conviction. The screen really does come alive with Oldman’s performance, which may be criticised for being over the top but is actually necessarily delightfully villainous.
Léon is a film that is deliberately careful when depicting these morally complex characters, making it remarkably easy for us to get behind the hitman. We see his reluctance at teaching Mathilda his craft, and yet also the way she breaks through his emotional resolve to teach him love. Besson wisely does not dwell on the sexual tension between the two (at least, not in this shorter version that I watched – there is also an extended version available), and Léon is primarily a father figure and mentor. Mathilda, coming from an abusive home, had lost her innocence before meeting Léon, but it is through his teaching and Portman’s wonderful acting that her character is able to undergo a transformation.
This film performs the difficult task of appealing to both those that enjoy mindless action and those that revel in drama. It is through the characterisation that the action is given impact – compare, for example, the thrilling opening to the electrifying climax. As fun as the opening is, it is only once we have grown to care for Léon that the action scenes really become fraught with consequence, and therefore far more exciting. It is with great skill that Besson has ensured both action and drama are effectively entwined.
Léon is a highly enjoyable and surprisingly intelligent movie experience. The action may be stylish, but the story is strong enough to retain attention throughout. This is a movie that isn’t just for action junkies and their girlfriends – it’s for everyone. EVERYONE.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★