Léon: The Professional is often noted as one of the great crime thrillers of the 90’s alongside other classics like Heat and Goodfellas but what sets Léon apart is the emotional game that it plays with the audience alongside showcasing one of the greatest debut performances in the whole of Hollywood from a 13 year old and instantly recognisable, Natalie Portman. Directed by French auteur, Luc Besson, Léon marked the follow up his 1990 French-Italian female led thriller, Nikita, which is often cited as a precursor for Léon as the idea of the independent, in control woman is looked at further but also lead actor, Jean Reno plays a similar character in Nikita as Léon.
Reno plays Léon, a ‘cleaner’ (or hit man), who lives a quiet and lonely life in New York City. He appears to have few friends and even less acquaintances, he lives his life for his job and his houseplant, which he nurtures throughout the film. He is hired by Tony (Danny Aiello), a local mafioso on jobs. In the same building where Léon lives, is a little girl called Mathilda (Portman), whom he catches smoking over the balcony in their uprise regularly. She seems quite content with her mundane life as she is used to her dysfunctional family; her abusive father and selfish stepmother. Mathilda has dropped out of the special school that her father sent her to and lives her days out trying to avoid getting a beating. But suddenly her life changes after the corrupt and evil DEA agent, Norman Stansfield (a thrilling Gary Oldman) and his team gun down Mathilda’s family (including her stepsister and brother), after Norman suspects that her father has stolen some cocaine he had stashed away for him. She is distraught, not at the death of her parents but at her baby brother, whom she exclaims had done nothing wrong and was the most innocent one of them all.
Mathilda is taken in by Léon; what he quite feels about her, he isn’t even sure but there is something inside of her growing that he empathises with and wants to ensure she is looked after. Whilst she initially grapples at trying to hire Léon to kill Stansfield in revenge for her brother, he rejects outrightly. No matter how much money she offers him, he just is not interested and so instead, she makes a deal with him. She wants to learn to become a ‘cleaner’ herself and in return she will look after the home for them both. Here starts the second act of the film, a wonderful and sincere story of a couple, who are devoid of titles. There is something so kind about their relationship and yet it is difficult to put into words how it actually works; at points they appear as father and daughter whereas at other times, they appear as a loving couple. Regardless, Léon teaches her, builds up her confidence and pushes her in the right direction but always explains that she should never let revenge get the best of her.
Léon is a masterpiece in filmmaking; it perfectly builds up and captures the tension of the situations, whilst at the same time allowing the audience to become captivated and emotionally involved in the characters journey’s. Rather than just a standard crime thriller, Léon allows another level of entry to the story and asks a lot of questions around revenge, relationships and gender roles. But what Léon really does rely upon are the outstanding performances from the central three cast members; Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, who are all just glorious to watch. The chemistry between Reno and Portman is powerful, innocent, sensual and mysterious all at the same time, which makes perfect sense considering the relationship they have and how it changes throughout the film. Whereas it is easy to understand why Oldman’s portrayal of Stansfield has gone down as one of the most evil on screen villains of all time; he is scary, uncontrolled and able to kill anyone with no remorse whatsoever.
An intense, smouldering monster of a film; there is no reason why Léon, which is celebrating 20 years, won’t continue to have fans the world over for another 20 years. It is a timeless classic, something so rarely seen in cinema anymore, telling a universal tale of finding someone to care about and someone to care about you.
Studiocanal celebrate 20 years of Léon with a new steel book Blu-ray release including both the director’s and theatrical cut, as well as brand new interviews.