Léon (1994)

Given how prolific a director and producer Luc Besson is (I’d wager that I read his name several times a year), I was surprised when I noticed that I’d only ever seen a single one of his films: The Fifth Element (1997), years ago. It kind of feels like I know Taken (2008) by heart because I certainly know its premise and major plot points thanks to parodies and sequel coverage, but I haven’t actually watched that one, either.

So I figured it was time to take a look at the film that put Besson on the map, Léon (note: I watched the so-called international cut, which is called a Director’s Cut on the DVD cover, but apparently isn’t).

The movie opens with a long tracking shot straight through Manhattan, coming to rest on close-ups of first the hands, and then the iconic round sunglasses of the title character, an assassin for the Italien mob in the process of getting hired for a new job. Mimicking that initial camera move, we follow Léon (Jean Reno) as he single-mindedly and single-handedly takes a gangster’s posse to deliver a message. To his opponents, he must seem like a ghost, that’s how eerily efficient his actions and movements are. Once he’s finished, he goes to the cinema and watches an old movie. His previously stone-faced expression morphs into a child-like fascination regarding the moving picture.

The rest of the film explores this seeming contradiction. Léon may have the body of a man and the ruthlessness of a killer, but in many ways he also has the mind of a child. He speaks slowly, something not completely explained by his foreign origins, and only learns to read (slowly) during the course of the film. He’s loyal like a dog. He appears flummoxed, at times frightened by the concept of love.

His character is contrasted with that of Mathilda (Natalie Portman). At 12 years old, she’s already had to grow up prematurely because of a difficult upbringing. And then her whole family gets murdered by a corrupt cop (Gary Oldman, who’s only in the film for a few minutes but leaves a definite impression). With nowhere else to go and Oldman’s character after her to complete his kill collection, she manages to convince Léon to stay with and eventually even get trained by him so she can take her revenge. Her presence and moxie teach the initially more or less unwilling Léon empathy and responsibility.

Refreshingly, she does this not via the Little Lord Fauntleroy route of being a perfect angel. She’s a complicated character who makes mistakes and isn’t always very sympathetic (for instance, some childish behaviour puts them both at risk several times). There is also a somewhat weird undercurrent in the script which can’t go unmentioned, giving Mathilda an infatuation with her surrogate father that borders on sexual attraction. Léon never allows her to act on these impulses, probably not even because of any pedophiliac worries but more because he’s unable to grasp the concept of sexuality. Mathilda’s not mature enough to recognize that her advances are wrong and Léon is not mature enough to reject her forcefully enough and for the right reasons, but reject her he does.

The movie never affects moral outrage at this, leaving that to the viewer. Nor does it explicitly judge Léon’s profession, or the fact that he teaches a very young teenager to kill (though there are characters that disapprove). It helps that the story seems to take place in a heightened reality, one where crime is so commonplace that nearby residents don’t care about gunshots and the police are so thoroughly corrupt that it seems only logical that the only recourse would be to turn to a hitman. Oldman’s character has a whole team of compromised and trigger-happy cops, and the only counterweight to that which we see (a half-hearted internal affairs investigation) doesn’t amount to anything. When the main criminal character is a killer savant with his own moral code and the main police character is a sadistic psycho murderer, it makes it hard not to root for the “bad” guys.

This topsi-turviness lends Léon a certain surreal quality, enhanced by the over-the-top violence and the discrepancy between how realistically Mathilda’s capabilities are handled versus the nigh-supernatural feats of her mentor. The dialogue can be a bit silly, but it fits into this world, at least as spoken by the film’s wonderful principal actors. There’s even time for the occasional bits of dark humour, though less broad than in The Fifth Element. I’m curious to see whether that’s also present in the significantly more dour-looking Taken or Lucy (2014). Hopefully it won’t take me another dozen or so years to find out.

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