Léon (1995)    3 Stars

“A perfect assassin. An innocent girl. They have nothing left to lose except each other.”


Leon (1995)

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman

Synopsis: Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl, who is reluctantly taken in by Léon, a professional assassin, after her family is murdered. Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the assassin’s trade.




Although set in New York, Leon is a French movie that contains an unmistakeably European sensibility which sets it apart from US-made thrillers. You could no more mistake it for an American movie than you could, say, Jean de florette. There’s a kind of thoughtfulness about it, a measured tone which suggests it’s less interested in providing a visceral insight into the life of a hitman that will connect with the multiplex crowd than in getting under the skin of its key characters and exploring the changes they undergo as their relationship develops. Controversially, those two characters are a grown man and a pre-pubescent but precocious girl; this, and the fact that the girl is sexualised in a number of scenes, is another reason why the movie would never have been made (at least, in the same way) in the States.

Jean Reno plays Leon, a professional hit-man. Leon is as far removed from a hit-man’s typical screen persona as it is possible to get: he wears a baggy overcoat (to hide his impressive arsenal of weapons), a beanie hat and trousers that flap two inches above his ankles. He looks more like a character from a comedy movie than a crime thriller. He never really seems to fit in with his surroundings, wherever he is, and seems vaguely nonplussed by the world in which he finds himself. But early on in the picture we see him — or rather we, like his victims, mostly don’t see him — calmly exterminating a small army of gangsters with machine-like efficiency, catching only the briefest glimpses of him until his knife-wielding arm emerges from the blackness to caress a cowering mob leader’s throat. This motion suggests there is something of the night about Leon, that he’s a hardened, emotionless creature. But then we see him watching a Gene Kelly musical with all the excited enthusiasm of a five-year-old.

Leon lives in an apartment block next door to a family whose father holds drugs for Stansfield, a corrupt police officer, played with scenery-chewing ferocity by Gary Oldman. Stansfield, a sweaty, slightly dishevelled figure, appears to operate on the fringes of sanity, crunching down on green-and-yellow caplets to give him a chemical rush before he goes about his business of indiscriminately killing those who get in his way. Leon’s neighbour has been skimming from the drugs he’s been holding, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Stansfield and his men, and when he continues to deny it, he and his family are cruelly wiped out. The only survivor is Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a disturbed young girl who is out buying milk at the time and who turns to Leon for help when she stumbles across the immediate aftermath of the massacre.

Against his better judgment, Leon takes Mathilda in, and eventually agrees to show her how to become a ‘cleaner.’ She wants to avenge the death of her four-year-old brother, but when Leon refuses, she determines to do it alone. However, she is trapped by Stansfield, and it’s down to Leon to rescue her from the police station in which she is held.

Leon is one of those movies that subtly plays upon our expectations. Leon, the professional killer, is a child at heart, drinking milk, enjoying musicals, wearing ill-fitting clothes and receiving his pocket money from Tony, an avuncular mob boss who may or may not be ripping Leon off (we never know, and it never seems to occur to Leon, whose complete trust in Tony’s motives are like those of a child’s inherent belief in their parent’s goodness). Mathilda, however is an adult before her time (I’ve stopped growing up,’ she reflects at one point, ‘I’m just getting older’.) and is eager to taste the accessories of adulthood (alcohol, cigarettes, and sex). This reversal of expected adult-child roles provides the basis for a richly textured relationship between Leon and Mathilda that some might find disturbing, but which is really just an adjunct to the core of their story which has to be addressed if their relationship is to retain its veracity.

Both Reno and Portman give deeply affecting performances, the youthful exuberance of her character, unquelled despite an abusive upbringing, and Leon’s shy awkwardness meshing well together to create a closeness and warmth that is as endearing as it is unlikely. The chances of these two disparate characters finding one another are remote enough for their relationship to seem like a minor miracle, and offers them an unexpected shot at redemption which is aptly symbolised in the final act.

Although French director Luc Besson succeeds in writing a deeply thought-provoking story, he also provides enough action and explosions to keep all types of moviegoers entertained. Even with the level of praise it has earned since its release, it still seems a little under-valued to me…

(Reviewed 2nd December 2012)