At once a stunning piece of action cinema, but more importantly a fantastic character study of the relationship between a child and an adult (it is left up to the viewer to decide who is who during the course of the film), Leon initially sounds morally un-defendable – a hit man takes an orphan into his care and begins to teach her about his profession – but slowly morphs into something altogether more emotionally resonant and moving. Suffice to say, the film that you left the cinema having watched at the end was not the one that you’d expected in the beginning, instead this was a far more adult film than we’d dared to hope for from a director who until that point had been guilty of style over substance.
Not that it doesn’t have style in abundance; the opening five minutes as Jean Reno’s near mute assassin stalks his prey through a penthouse apartment is a master class in economic action, utilising shocks and scares to ramp up the sense of tension to unbearable levels before delivering the pay-off. At this stage we’re willing to believe that his Leon is nigh on indestructible, a walking personification of death, the standard action trope. So when the film eventually slows down and relaxes, opening out into his wider life were already disarmed by the contradiction of the reality – the emotional man-child lost in America. Reno could almost be a substitute for the director at this stage, but Besson is far smarter than that.
Portman’s Matilda is equally complex (and all the more astonishing given it was her debut), a child forced into adulthood by her parents failings. If Leon initially appears physically indestructible, she appears emotionally so, but again Besson pulls the rug from under us, revealing that despite her savvy she’s still a child and still needs protection. Come the end of the film she’s grown in the sense that she is finally allowed a childhood, albeit one that is born out of pain.
The relationship between these two forms the beating heart of the film, and because Besson chooses to focus on this instead of the action we become attached to them. Their relationship feels (almost) normal, although the fact that this adult & child are thrown together in extraordinary circumstances is never forgotten. He emerges emotionally, she learns to relax. Even the potentially distasteful elements are dealt with a delicate touch, he quickly emerges as almost asexual and there’s a sense of reluctance to the scenes where he teaches her his trade, Besson realises we must have total sympathy with both characters without any reservation for his story to work.
The third part of the triangle is Gary Oldman as Stansfield, the corrupt policeman that will cross both of their lives. Besson (wisely) realised that the film needed at least one larger than life character based on a recognisable trope for the audience to latch onto. Oldman delivers the sort of wild eyed, pill popping dervishes that he became famous for – Stansfield is one of those rare villains that the audience actively despises, even allowed to commit the most cardinal of sins, killing a child (thankfully off-screen) – something that Hollywood still shies away from. In a film full of characters in grey rather than Black & white, he’s the most polar character and Oldman relishes every moment of it.
The sense of trust Besson displays in his actors (in particular Portman, who must have been a huge risk at the time) allows him to focus his attention elsewhere. Once again the outsiders view of America (and in particular New York) creates a film that is far different from what an American director would have produced. This is neither the hell-hole of Taxi Driver nor the romanticised version of Annie Hall, rather low rise and anonymous. The action rarely leaves the apartment block in which the titular character resides reflecting his limited world view, but when it does the world outside is cold & desolate – this is not a populated version of the city. Nearly all of the characters are foreigners in a foreign land, the isolation of this increasing the (initial) isolation of the primary character. Besson retains his flair for action, but as the film progresses even as the set-pieces become more and more outlandish, Leon becomes more & more vulnerable. The cold-blooded killer at the beginning is driven by emotion come the end.
Which brings us to the ending, a distinctly European approach to a classic Hollywood staple, the hero under siege. Hollywood would have him survive all that happens to him and emerge victorious, watching his charge from afar come the credits. Instead Leon’s victory is that he finally has someone worth dying for, and his final line hits the emotional weight of this and what has come before home like a hammer. By the time Matilda has returned to normality (if her life will ever be normal again), still talking to her (now dead) guardian there’s barely a dry eye in the cinema. Besson has not only left behind Europe, he’s finally gained substance.
For me it remains the best film that both Besson & Reno would make, and Black Swan apart it remains Portman’s strongest performance. Besson would make bigger & flashier films, but they would feel more hollow, less emotionally strong. Reno became the standard enigmatic foreigner in a multitude of lacklustre films, never quite living up to this promise. Portman would eventually escape the films pull, but for years afterwards it became the standard by which she and other child actors we judged. It’s a cultural oddity, a foreign film made in Hollywood, an action film where the action isn’t important. It has a timeless quality to it, looking at it now it could have been made any time after the emergence of the modern blockbuster. More importantly it still packs the same emotional wallop the twentieth time you see it as it did the first, it remains just as fresh, just as brilliant.