Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the Big Deal?
Leon (also known as Leon: The Professional) is an action thriller film released in 1994 that was written and directed by Luc Besson in what was his first fully-English language production. The film follows a lonely hitman operating in New York who reluctantly takes on caring for a young orphaned girl and begins training her to follow in his footsteps. The film stars Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello, and a debuting Natalie Portman who was just 12 at the time of shooting. It's considered to be an expansion of Besson's previous film Nikita, which also featured Reno as a professional hitman. The film was a commercial success with global takings in excess of $45 million, but critics were more mixed as many were uneasy at the casting of a pre-teen actress in such a violent action film. The film remains a cult classic with many attempts by Besson and others to produce a sequel, but an official sequel now appears unlikely.
What's It About?
Leon is an Italian hitman working for local mob boss Old Tony in New York's Little Italy neighbourhood. Returning home one day, Leon encounters the young girl who lives next door to him, Mathilda, sitting in the stairwell surreptitiously smoking a cigarette. Her life is a bleak battle for relevance between her uncaring parents and her cruel older sister—her only companion is her younger brother who she loves more than anything. Sadly, her world gets turned upside-down when her family are brutally slain in their apartment while Mathilda is out shopping. Returning while the gunmen are still there, she calmly walks past and knocks on Leon's door who reluctantly lets her in.
Determined to seek revenge for his infant brother, Mathilda quickly learns of Leon's profession (seeing through his description of his job as a cleaner) and persuades him to begin teaching her how to become a hitman like him. As the relationship between the two develops, Leon slowly learns how to switch off and care for another while Mathilda's reckless desire for vengeance threatens to get the better of her. And when they uncover the identity of the killers—psychotic DEA agent Stansfield and his equally corrupt colleagues—the stakes are raised even higher...
What's to Like?
The film's core revolves around the three central performances from Reno, Oldman and Portman. Reno effectively revives memories of his role in Nikita but fleshes the part out a bit more, introducing a more child-like persona beneath the cold-blooded assassin. It's a remarkable contrast but it makes Leon a fascinating character, a highly trained and lethal killer but one with a strict personal and moral code, one that he won't compromise for anyone. Portman offers a fantastic companion to Reno, a Lolita-style femme fatale who is both world-weary and innocent at the same time. Despite her inexperience, she brings genuine emotion to the role and feels as though the part was written for her. Speaking of Portman's appearance, the film does indeed sexualise her character to a degree but it's not as bad as you might think. Certainly, she isn't anything like as aggressive as Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl in the Kick-Ass films.
But it's Oldman who remains longest in the memory, despite having the least amount of time on screen of the three. A drug-addled, theatrical villain in the grandest of traditions, his twisted and over-the-top delivery is exactly what the character calls for, whether he's gleefully blasting people with shotguns or extolling the virtues of Beethoven to a terrified suspect. The three of them make the film feel much more epic than its otherwise straightforward narrative may imply and through Besson's typical stylish direction, the film is great to watch. Action scenes are amazing, even if Leon does feel like he's trapped in The Matrix at times, and because they are limited in number they actually give the film a chance to build up tension before the explosive release. I also recommend Eric Serra's soundtrack, a pulsing electronic accompaniment that sounds reminiscent of his later work on the Bond film GoldenEye.
- Keith A. Glascoe, who played Stansfield's large henchman in the hallway, later became a firefighter with the Ladder 21 company in Hell's Kitchen. He was tragically killed during the events of September 11th, 2001 when the World Trade Center collapsed.
- Portman's parents were very concerned about her welfare on set, resulting in a complex contract being signed. Among other things, the contract stated Mathilda must never be seen inhaling or exhaling cigarette smoke and that she must give up smoking over the course of the film. If you watch closely, you'll see that Portman never actually smokes a cigarette in the film.
- Besson conceived this film's premise while working on Nikita where Reno plays a 'cleaner' tidying up a botched assassination attempt. Writing the script in just 30 days, he thought that he could quickly shoot Leon while waiting to start his next project, the sci-fi epic The Fifth Element, after Bruce Willis was delayed due to scheduling. This film, which was originally going to be called The Cleaner, was shot in 90 days using much of the same crew and is now widely regarded as being the better of the two films.
What's Not to Like?
If I'm being brutally honest with myself, the film can feel a little bit slow at times. The film is at its best when Leon dons his iconic trench coat, sunglasses and beanie hat and he begins taking the baddies out with more than a pinch of panache. He brings an energy to the picture that fades when things go into more dramatic fare, such as during his meetings with Aiello's mobster (another fine performance) or when Mathilda hopelessly tries to seduce Leon. Stansfield also generates energy but of a different sort, a snarling and unpredictable menace that seems to genuinely unsettle everyone around him. I also wanted to spend more time with these characters, Leon especially. You sense that there is a back-story waiting to be told and the film never quite gets there. Still, it's never a bad sign when a film leaves you wanting more of it.
Other that the occasional mention of Leon being Italian when he's clearly speaking with Reno's native French accent, there isn't anything about this film I'd change. I can think of very few movies that make me cry, that can bring that much emotion out of me—It's A Wonderful Life is one—but the first time I heard Sting's acoustic version of Shape Of My Heart over the closing scenes, I'm not ashamed to say that I welled up. This is a classy, thrilling film that has more heart and soul in it than countless other imitators including many subsequent Besson projects. If you want an action film to truly move you then this should be your first choice.
Should I Watch It?
With a director easily handling the material and a cast all on top form, Leon is a deep and rewarding film that makes the most of its basic premise and delivers plenty of action, pathos and surprise. Reno cements his place in the pantheon of great action heroes like Bruce Willis while Portman announces her arrival with a performance that belies her age—it's still one of the best roles of her career. It won't change your life but this is one film that any fan of cinema owes it to themselves to watch.
Great For: action film fans, Luc Besson's success outside of France, Jean Reno
Not So Great For: New York residents, overly sensitive viewers, the DEA
What Else Should I Watch?
I find Besson a curious character, a filmmaker who doesn't compromise on his style or subject matter but continues to produce plenty of screenplays and films that happily sit in the framework of a typical Hollywood blockbuster. His more recent efforts—Lucy and Anna—have followed a similar pattern of a strong female protagonist, although this pattern was established in far better films like this and Nikita. And yet, he also dabbles frequently with sci-fi and fantasy films—The Fifth Element is an ambitious and visually stunning sci-fi epic that wears its Gallic influence on both sleeves while the underrated Angel-A is a black-and-white comedy depicting a luckless con artist rediscovering his form thanks to a mysterious but beautiful lady.
His screenplays have become hugely successful with films like The Transporter, Taken and Taxi all going on to become franchises in their own right. Among his written work, I would recommend the energetic thriller District 13 with its ground-breaking parkour stunt work and the aforementioned Taken which gave us Liam Neeson's second career as a hard-nosed man of action. Although perhaps don't bother with the sequels...
Release Date (UK)
3rd February, 1995
15 (2009 re-rating)
Action, Crime, Thriller
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