The case of Leon‘s DVD comes with the following blurb:
“He moves without sound. Kills without emotion. Disappears without trace.”
Of the character’s profession, namely hit-man, this is very true, but Luc Besson‘s movie Leon (“Léon: The Professional” to give it its full and correct title) is much more a study of the relationship between immigré Léon (French-Spanish Jean Reno) and native New Yorker Mathilda (Natalie Portman, who is actually a native Israeli but long-time American), a 12-year old living with her family in a neighbouring apartment in New York’s Little Italy.
When Mathilda is orphaned by a gang of corrupt DEA agents under the leadership of drug-happy Norman Stansfield (British Gary Oldman, of whom more shortly), Léon takes in the girl to protect her, reluctantly teaches her how to be a “cleaner”, saves her skin and ultimately sacrifices himself for her benefit.
Reno’s Léon is both sharp and innocent. He trusts wise guy Tony for his work and with his money; he cares about his fitness and his house plant (his “best friend”), drinks milk and leads a spartan life. At work, the contrast is total: he kills in cold blood and does so with clinical efficiency, outwitting the dumb hoods he is sent to rub out – or at least scare witless. He knows what he is doing faced with overwhelming odds, but even he cannot live without the ever-present danger of his job. Injured by a bullet, he does not go to hospital but painfully removes the slug and stitches himself up.
By contrast, Mathilda is sassy, streetwise and cheeky, an accomplished liar and wild child. She and the childlike Léon have much to learn from one another. They are an odd couple, yet share a strange mutual respect and affection. As they play an impersonation game, he knows none of the stars she takes off, and she doesn’t recognise John Wayne, but typically comments “I was just going to say that!”
She shows him what normal life can be like, in a quirky and funny way. Leon discovers the emotional side of relationships, what it feels like to love and care for another person, while he is in many ways the father she always wanted – a romantic hero rather than the two-bit drugs hustler killed by a doped-up Stansfield along with her mother and siblings.
But of course there has to be character development, and Mathilda’s motives are to gain revenge on Stansfield. Here the movie runs into problems, since Oldman’s Stansfield is so far over the top that he left credibility behind years before, for which Besson must take full responsibility in allowing a fine actor to indulge in some vintage ham acting.
Did I say ham acting? He takes the whole joint! Nobody in real life would employ Stansfield, let alone letting him loose on the streets as leader of a downbeat gang of corrupt undercover narc agents. Toning down his act would have made the character infinitely more effective – just as Oldman did so brilliantly as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But then, Stansfield acts as a perfect contrast to Reno’s underplayed hitman, and just maybe that is deliberate.
In some ways it’s easy to think this is a movie I would not have liked for a fair number of reasons, but it’s irresistible and certainly stands repeated viewings, either as an action drama or a tale of human relationships. That this works so well is enormous credit to the consummate skill of Besson in delivering narrative and communicating through camera, sound, music and character.
The movie, which in other hands could easily have been an action fest alone, is emotionally engaging, charming and delightful, but retains its edge – and you know that as sure as eggs is eggs there will be a showdown between Reno and Oldman – and it does not disappoint!