Tom Jolliffe double bills Luc Besson’s Nikita and Leon…
Think back to the 90’s. A transitional time for action films. It was also an era that saw a French director hit it big in Hollywood. Then think about the best assassin films of the decade. Chances are when piling up candidates, you’re likely to have at least one, if not two, films from a certain Luc Besson.
Having established himself in the 80’s with films like Subway and The Big Blue (the first one which introduced Besson’s work to a wider US audience), Besson would become a huge name throughout the 90’s (with The Fifth Element), before transitioning significantly into film production too, putting his name to innumerable ‘Besson-esque’ productions like Taxi and then later, to Taken.
Still, Besson’s greatest works remain the two assassin films he made in the 90’s. An excellent double bill. So lets take a look back.
Nikita (La Femme Nikita)
A breakout French hit that did well worldwide, Nikita is a film that is perhaps unfairly overshadowed by Besson’s other iconic assassin flick of the era. It did however spawn a serviceable Hollywood remake and a couple of TV shows (a first one and then a reboot a little more recently). Besson’s original is an unfathomably stylish, effortlessly cool film with a synth poppy, electronic soundtrack.
Anne Parillaud is a young, drug addicted petty criminal. During a botched convenience store robbery with her gang cohorts, Parillaud kills a police officer. She’s then reprieved of execution and taken to a secret facility which retrains former criminals as agency assassins. Under the watchful eye of Tcheky Karyo, she’s trained in an array of arts from the nitty gritty of weapons usage and martial arts, down to becoming more feminine and improving her etiquette.
Besson’s flair for set pieces and loads of beautiful blue doused visuals are matched with an ability here to engage as a character piece. Parillaud’s arc through the film is very interesting, as is the dynamic between herself and Karyo. After her release back into conventional society, she’s effectively on call for any hits. As real life, which was always alien to her, becomes a new reality (nice apartment, new boyfriend etc) she finds the notion of her ‘job’ difficult to contend with, and is faced with the prospect of having no choice in the matter.
Parillaud is exceptional. She’s got masses of character, loads of quirk and energy but a lot of vulnerability and hidden depth. She was already fairly well established in France, but this was a real star turn, winning her a Cesar award for her performance. Elsewhere, as said, Eric Serra’s music is fantastic. It brings scenes to life. It’s poppy, bright and energetic, but cuts through with a mellow restraint when needed too. So much of the film is loaded with dynamic and visceral camera work, with Besson coming to the peak of his powers. There’s also a small but memorable role for Jean Reno.
Leon (The Professional)
Back in the mid 90’s, if you liked action films ( and for my generation it began with suckling at the teat of Stallone and Schwarzenegger) then Leon came like a thunderbolt from Zeus himself. Whilst those 80’s icons of masculinity were scrambling to remain relevant, more ‘realistic’ heroes were coming to the fore in the mid-90’s. Keanu Reeves, Nic Cage, Will Smith and a load of others were beginning to usurp the muscle man.
1994, step in Besson with this tale of tween bloodlust, as Mathilda (Natalie Portman) has her whole family wiped out by a clinically insane and corrupt cop (Gary Oldman). Little does she know her quiet and reclusive neighbour with a penchant for drinking milk, is actually a hitman (Jean Reno). When he reluctantly takes her in after the murders, she discovers his secret and sets about convincing him to kill Stansfield, or train her how to do it.
Reno, middle aged, a touch paunchy with hound-dog eyes was a world away from the chiselled theatrics of Hollywood action men. Still, as I and many more young boys my age discovered at the time, Leon was a badass. This was, after a kind of post T2 lull, a great year for action films which also saw Keanu stuck on a bus. Leon, something of a simpleton in every day matters of civilised life (even down to being illiterate) is however, the perfect assassin, which is well evident in an opening hit scene that riffs a little on an almost identical opener in Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher from a few years previously. Moving like a ghost, appearing from nowhere, Leon stalks and kills the bodyguards of a crime boss, before delivering his message.
The chemistry between Reno and Portman is great. There was some controversy with the film and its depiction of their relationship. At least in the theatrical cut it stays fairly pure, and in the end, it’s a film less about any sexuality and more about morality. It sees Mathilda at a crossroads in life, about to see a very dark path in front of her. Ultimately Leon cares enough for her, that he doesn’t want to see her down that road.
Besson’s flair for action and visual style is well in evidence here, whilst Eric Serra delivers another great score. The film has a good accompanying soundtrack too with Bjork and Sting adding to proceedings. Still…what doe people most remember about Leon? It has to be the absolutely spine-tingling and utterly electrifying performance from Gary Oldman. Over the top bursts of instinctive, drug addled, unpredictable fury in a character, which for all those over the top theatrics, feels chillingly believeable (in much the same way as Nicholson’s totally out there portrayal of Jack Torrance was anchored with a level of sincerity and immersion that made it terrifying). Oldman’s depiction of Stansfield is bat shit crazy, but his eyes are gone. He’s submerged and at least while the cameras role, he was totally committed. Leon is a masterpiece of action cinema.
What are you thoughts on Nikita and Leon? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Twitter page @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/