These days Léon director Luc Besson deals more in producing Euro-action-thrillers that are both formulaic and predictable, we’re looking at you Taken and Transporter franchises. But looking back at Léon, twenty years after it’s original 1994 release, it’s amazing how well it stands up and how much heart is injected into what could so easily have become another one-man-army action thriller. What is more, Léon allows us to look back the debut performance that would one day become one of Hollywood’s biggest actresses, and an Oscar winning one at that, in the shape of a young Natalie Portman.
Léon (Jean Reno) is an assassin for hire in New York. He likes to keep to himself and has a very strict code of killing; no women, no kids. But when his neighbours are brutally gunned down by corrupt cop Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), Léon has no choice but to take young Mathilda (Portman) in or watch her go the same route has her family. With the killer’s inner sanctum now occupied by a precocious teenager, Mathilda soon learns what Léon dose for a living and strikes a deal with him; she’ll look after him, cook, clean and generally help this loner be more sociable if he teaches her to kill in order to take revenge on the people who murdered her family.
Like Léon himself Besson’s direction is efficient and slicker than an otter coated in oil. While bullets glide off Léon so Besson’s camera glides around enclosed, ricochet-ridden hallways. The grace of the camera work allows Léon to take on Batman-like qualities, able to vanish into shadow only to seemingly teleport and snare his prey. Throw in an eclectic, if slightly over-used, score by Eric Serra that flits from quaint French accordion to tension enhancing doom music and Léon is a ‘90s action film with more than just the premise to fall back on.
Central to it all is the relationship between Léon and Mathilda. The perfect combination of characters, one a monosyllabic killing machine, who has clearly suffered a broken heart at one point, being slowly warmed-up by a young girl so tenacious and flirty it’s hard not fall in love with her. The director’s cut of the film installs more of Mathilda’s training, which is welcome, but does slightly undermine the ambiguity of the romance between the pair by having Mathilda openly proposition Léon. Thankfully his wide-eyed horror means that no icky boundaries are ever crossed.
But amongst all the violence, chaos and assassin bonding it’s easy to forget the comedy on offer. Oldman’s entire performance is wonderfully comedic, everything over-pronounced with lines that in another’s hands would not be nearly as memorable or amusing as they are in his. The interaction between Reno’s often slack-jawed Léon and Portman’s wise-beyond-her-years Mathilda is always warming and often laugh out loud funny. That’s before you notice little touches like Mathilda registering them into a hotel under the name MacGuffin.
While Besson’s direction is at it’s peak so too are the performances. Reno’s Léon is a heartwarming character. Beneath the cold, robotic killer is a slack-jawed innocent, the kind of man who goes to the cinema and gazes up in sheer joy at the images in front of him. Oldman is at the zenith of his endlessly memorable, wonderfully over the top villains. His Stansfield is eccentric, cool and nuttier than a bag of squirrels. There’s so much menace and emphasis on his dialogue he takes the term ‘bad guy’ to hugely entertaining and memorable levels. Portman, all of 11 years old when cast in the role, is a delicate pixie with more than a hint of Lolita like abilities to tempt even the monastic Léon. One minute a fragile kid, the next a venomous ball of tiny rage, hell bent on revenge without ever losing sight of Mathilda’s purity in this violent world.
For years Besson and Portman have toyed with the idea of making a sequel, while it would almost certainly lack the magic here it’s hard not to yearn to see where Mathilda ended up after all her planting and killing ways.
Slick, heartbreaking and cooler than a penguin wearing sunglasses, Léon is an action thriller with smartly original set pieces and enough character to make you melt.