I like Luc Besson’s “Leon” for a number of reasons, but probably the best reason is the movie, and writer/director Besson’s, complete and utter disregard for what constitutes good taste. Maybe it’s a French thing, but there are so many elements within “Leon” that could be construed as perverse or even downright dirty. Under Besson’s handling the film comes across as just brutally honest, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective.
Besson regular Jean Reno is the titular Leon, a Frenchman in New York who is also a professional hitman. Leon calls himself a “cleaner,” and perhaps the title is appropriate. (The whole “cleaner” thing actually harkens back to Besson’s film “La Femme Nikita,” where another “cleaner” was called in to “clean” a bad situation — re: kill everything in sight.) Leon is what you would call a Clich’ Hitman. He’s a loner, sleeps sitting on a chair, and his only friend is his broker Tony (Danny Aiello), who may or may not actually be a friend when the chips are down. Leon’s only trusted ally is his potted plant, which should tell you something about his life, or lack thereof. The only Hitman Movie clich’ that “Leon” avoids is the whole Hitman’s Last Job thing, and I thank Besson for avoiding this oh-so-overdone clich’.
Leon’s life gets complicated when Mathilda (a very young 12-year old Natalie Portman) comes to him for help. The two live in the same building and next door from each other, and Mathilda’s father has crossed some crooked DEA cops led by Gary Oldman. The family is subsequently massacred, including Mathilda’s 4-year old brother, leaving Mathilda homeless and wanted. Against his own code, Leon saves the girl from certain death, thus ensuring that his life will never be the same again.
“Leon” is actually the International version of the film and runs over two hours long. There is a shorter American version that goes by the name “The Professional” that is missing quite a bit of footage. Although I saw the American version years ago, I can’t compare it to this International version by memory. What I can do is reasonably guess what was chopped from the American version: the whole 12-year old girl and 30-something man relationship between Mathilda and Leon, not to mention some gruesome killings in the beginning. But I’ll wager much of the footages chopped off dealt with Mathilda and Leon and not the violence.
There are a lot of inherent problems with making a movie that has such a drastic age difference between its two main characters, especially when one is a man and the other is a girl, and they’re not father and daughter. One problem is the risk of making the audience uncomfortable. What “Leon” does with its added footage, I believe, is flesh out the relationship a little bit more, so that the whole situation doesn’t become simply awkward. Mathilda’s schoolgirl crush on Leon, and Leon’s subsequent actions around her, are dealt with honesly. (In case you are wondering, there are no sexually explicit scenes between the two — or any sexual scenes for that matter. The whole “love” thing exists in a cerebral manner, except for one hug.)
“Leon” definitely takes a lot of chances. It never shies away from potentially troubling sequences and seems happy to tackle them head-on. One scene, where Leon teaches Mathilda to snipe joggers in Central Park, is quite stunning in its simplicity and the matter-of-fact way Besson films it. Much of “Leon” is matter-of-fact, including a brutal siege at the end inside the hallways of a hotel.
That doesn’t mean the film is all action. The bulk of the film deals with Leon’s attempts to “properly” handle Mathilda, and Mathilda’s attempts to control her thirst for vengeance — which is not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re only 12 years old.
Luc Besson (director) / Luc Besson (screenplay)
CAST: Jean Reno …. L’on
Gary Oldman …. Norman Stansfield
Natalie Portman …. Mathilda
Danny Aiello …. Tony
Peter Appel …. Malky