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  Léon childlike killer meets pint-sized femme fatale
Year: 1995
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello
Genre: Comedy, Action, Thriller, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 4 votes)
Review: Léon (Jean Reno) is a lonely, childlike hitman able to wipe out ten dozen gangsters and disappear like a shadow. A foreigner adrift in New York City, his only joys are his plants and watching Gene Kelly dance across the silver screen. Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is a twelve-year-old girl with the face of an angel and the soul of Sylvia Plath, but she’s still a kid, unloved by her parents, in desperate need of a friend. When psychotic federal agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman) massacres Mathilda’s entire family, Léon – against his better judgement – shelters the little girl and trains her to be an assassin, while she brightens his life with her spirit and fanciful games. Mathilda falls in love with Léon who, deeply unsettled, keeps her at arm’s length. As they hit the vengeance trail, an enraged Stansfield shatters their idyll.

Following the temporary shutdown of his decades-in-the-planning dream-project, The Fifth Element (1997), Luc Besson wrote Léon in just thirty days and wound up with his masterpiece. It weaves elements from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai (1967), Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), and even Taxi Driver (1976) into a romantic, life-affirming, near-indescribable oddity. Part thriller, part comedy, part fairytale. An international hit, however its off-kilter mix of violence and whimsy baffled American critics, while studio execs queasy over the supposedly paedophilic content asked Besson to re-cut the film. Ten years later, critics writing for Empire magazine listed Léon among the ten greatest films of the nineties. Léon overflows with hidden treasures, subtle allusions and in-jokes that keep it endlessly re-watchable. It needs to be seen in Besson’s, now widely available, European cut that restores two key sequences: Léon and Mathilda’s assault on a gang-lord’s hideout (which sets up the grenade pin trick) and a scene where Mathilda asks Léon to become her first lover, and he gently declines.

Inspired in part by Besson’s relationship with teen model Maïwenn Le Besco (who played the alien diva in Fifth Element and starred in the Besson produced Switchblade Romance (2003)), Léon isn’t paedophilic in any traditional sense. Sex isn’t what’s on the agenda, but love and longing. What Mathilda wants from Léon isn’t intercourse, but an acknowledgement that her feelings are real (“I think I’ve fallen in love with you… I feel it in my stomach”). For Léon, Mathilda offers illumination, a spark that makes him feel alive – maybe for the first time. Besson and Maïwenn have spoken how the story is really about two lost souls connecting, however briefly, their love re-igniting a desire to live life to its fullest.

Besson’s adrenalin-charged visuals (He operates his own camera), the visceral shootouts, and Gary Oldman’s truly unhinged performance coalesce into a delirious cinematic experience, greatly enhanced by Eric Serra’s sublime, Eastern-influenced score (Not to mention the spine-tingling montage set to Bjork’s Venus as a Boy). But it’s the Reno/Portman double-act that provides the real heart and soul. Renowned film critic David Thompson mocked Reno’s performance as a Robert De Niro impersonation. Nonsense, it’s anything but. Reno had played an ice-cold professional killer in Besson’s La femme Nikita (1990). Here he mixes Alain Delon’s steely-eyed determination with Chaplinesque pathos and goofball charm. Besson’s movies almost always deal with aliens, adrift in unfamiliar surroundings. Reno’s Léon is such a beguilingly strange creation, a character straight out of the comic books Besson used to write. When that goofy smile lights up his face we glimpse the child within, and that’s something you don’t get with De Niro.

To watch Léon is to witness Natalie Portman transform into a movie star before your eyes. Portman is the movie’s living box of tricks, opening up to reveal another facet with every soulful glance, playful gesture and wry aside. Mathilda’s make-believe game, where Portman transforms herself into Madonna, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Gene Kelly is the movie’s magical highlight, and prompted an astonished Terence Stamp to call her: “an amazing cinema animal.” The only sour note is a coda that suggests Danny Aiello’s mobster won’t honour his pledge and pass Léon’s earnings to Mathilda. Even Portman’s hairstyle is significant, a nod to silent film icon Louise Brooks, placing her within the pantheon of cinema’s great femmes fatale. In many ways, Mathilda’s journey is our journey; as the movie sweeps us into fairytale whirlwind of deliberately exaggerate violence, cartoonish grotesques, heightened pathos, and tragic romance meant to evoke a child’s point of view. Then it drops us back in the real world, shaken, uncertain but with eyes wide open.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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