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”.
The film tells the story of a hitman living in New York, who keeps to himself and shows little emotion. One day he unexpectedly finds himself the guardian of a young girl. 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 on those who have hurt her, she is captured and Léon must rescue her. Will they live happily together now that she has given him a taste for life?
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 her loss, Luc Besson was so impressed with her ability and depth of emotion that he gave her the part.
Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) is a deranged bent cop who pops pills, conducts Beethoven whilst carrying out acts of violence 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. Stansfield is a very unpredictable character; you never know how he’s going to react. One minute he is calm and in control, the next he’s exploding with rage and doing something crazy. Oldman really makes this part his own and he is superb. Stansfield gets all the best lines and they are expertly delivered.
In complete contrast to this is Jean Reno’s performance as Léon, which is subtle and understated. According to Reno, he decided to play Léon as if he was a little mentally slow in an emotional sense. He felt that this would make audiences relax and realise that he wasn't someone who would take advantage of a vulnerable young girl. Reno claims that for Léon, the possibility of a physical relationship with Mathilda is not even conceivable. We can see this from the scenes where Mathilda ‘flirts’ with Léon. For example, when she says he has a cute name he almost chokes on his glass of milk. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
The soundtrack is another great element of the film. 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.
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 Léon is one of my favourite films. The performances, soundtrack, direction and script are all brilliant. It just goes to show that if you want a job done well, hire a professional.