Before I begin any of this little praise fest for one of my favorite movies, I’d just like to say that the world needs more Luc Besson films. In my own opinion I think that if George Lucas had been friends with Luc Besson we would have been treated to Star Wars prequel films that were 1). worthy of the name Star Wars and 2). just unbelievably great film making that would inspire young filmmakers for generations. There, that felt good to say.
Luc Besson, whether, writing directing or producing just makes some great films bar none. I still can’t decide which is my favorite as it comes down to this one and The Fifth Element. They are so different but equally good in terms of plot, story development, acting and art direction and, (the one department where he’s got it in spades) style. For those of you who haven’t seen Léon (or The Professional) please help yourself to the trailer below or better yet, stop reading this, go out and buy it (either the American version or the International version) and come back to finish reading…either way, I’ll wait…
First off, for the plot to cover as many genres as it does, this film is a wonder in itself – it’s equal parts love story, revenge tale, coming of age flick and (hand’s down everybody’s favorite) all out stylistic ‘shoot-em up’. Léon follows Italian hitman, of the same name, living in New York as the city’s top ‘cleaner’. When corrupt DEA agents take out little Matilda’s family (as her father was handling the dirty agents’ drugs) Mathilda avoided her family’s fate and soon after is taken in by a reluctant and secretive Leon. Soon after finding out that he is a hitman or ‘cleaner’, and realizing that there’s nothing left for her, Matilda wants Leon to teach her how to ‘clean’ and finally take out the agents responsible.
Since the most obvious plot of the movie (aside from Leon’s uberly impressive and slick profession) was a love interest that too much for American censors that it was taken out completely as well as most of her cleaner training. It is a little unnerving to watch these ‘removed’ parts in the movie after seeing the American version for so long. Those parts really become vital to the overall story to make it cohesive and develop Luc’s vision, but you can also understand why they were taken out. Regardless, Jean Reno (a French actor playing an Italian no less) did such an amazing job of simultaneously playing this unflinching hitman, and a social isolate. Seeing him shoot up and entire mob party and then try to have a conversation with Mathilda shows how disconnected (almost childlike) he is. For all the years he’s been a ‘cleaner’ he has simply conditioned himself to be a streamlined and focused assassin – no other interests and very few material possessions. So amazing was his performance but after watching it over a dozen times, it’s worth noting that there is nothing short of brilliance coming from a young Natalie Portman who channeled what looked like 40 years of screen experience into what I believe was her first role. For a child to pull off this type of emotion and deal with the subject matter was like watching Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
This movie was almost Godfather-like in a way where it had such a deep plot and undertone/subplot that took its time to establish the characters and develop their story with adequate screen time. So many movies just cram too much plot into 90 minutes and while watching it, you just don’t get on board with what’s happening on screen so you ultimately don’t care what happens to the characters. This movie allowed each character to establish themselves and play into such an interesting plot triangle which was just compelling to watch. Gary Oldman, such a screen treasure if you ask me, did nothing but shine as his stone-faced killings played more like blood lust and seemed a great comparison to Leon’s calculated occupational fluidity.
I try to watch this movie once a year and every time it just gets better. Having seen The Professional (remember it’s the tamer, American version) for the first time when I was in 8th grade, this set the bar way up for me as far as seeing action done in a very sleek and cool way. It’s only now, on repeat viewings of Léon, that the undertones and subplot of the love story as the more prevalent plot direction that I believe is actually more impressive to watch since it brings a gravity to the gun fighting and the ending…but maybe that’s just me. This movie hands down should be taught and referred to in film school if it is not already.