I sensed that Luc Besson (director of The Fifth Element and La Femme Nikita) was, like Tarantino and many, many others before him, borrowed elements from various films and genres to create their own voice in the film. With Leon, I sensed him alluding to the crime films of France (i.e. Melville), Hong-Kong (i.e. Woo), and America (i.e. Scorsese), and making it into his own special brand for the story and characters. That his style visually is as compelling helps a great deal. The international version (which is the one I saw) is a little grittier, and more suggestive, than the version most American audiences saw in 1994 and on cable. But it is also a must-see if you are planning to see the film. It's not a long movie, though it gives a good many details in its story.
Jean Reno has his star-making turn (at least for what he's worth) in Leon- he's ruthless contract killer who will kill just about anyone for the right price. He lives out of an apartment by himself, trying his best to ignore his noisy neighbors. One of the daughters is Mathilda (Natalie Portman, also a major breakthrough performance), abused by her whole family to no end. When a corrupt cop (Gary Oldman, one of the key villain performances of his career along with Dracula and Drexl in True Romance) goes and kills off her family while she's away, she has no one else to turn to besides the reclusive killer. She knows what he does, and she wants in. The rest of the film is about their relationship, as it unfolds professionally and emotionally, leading to a tremendous, bloody climax.
One thing that struck me most about Leon is the fact that the film was more disturbing than I expected. The idea of a killer getting a pupil in a young teenage girl is unusual enough, but the way it unfolds I felt so much for her plight got to me at times. this doesn't make Leon a tear-jerker (maybe for some, I'm not sure), but because of Portman's dead-on portrayal, it makes the story work somehow, and is in a way as fantastical as it is naturalistic. There are also a few scenes that stuck out as being little masterpieces of all the elements coming together. The first is a brief scene, and crucial to showing the character of Leon early on- he takes a break after his contract, and sees a movie, a musical with Gene Kelly. He's the only one in the theater, and he is completely in the grasp of what he sees on the screen. It's the perfect touch of humanity and shows his only escape is into complete fantasy.
The second is when Leon and Mathilda are in a restaurant, after she has just gone through a day of training (there's a hilarious montage that follows this scene). Mathilda is getting drunk off of champagne, rambling with words she may or may not mean. Suddenly, she starts laughing, and she laughs more, and harder. People in the restaurant look at her like she's nuts. Leon is, of course, embarrassed. However, I thought this was just the right touch to this scene, where the kind of father-daughter relationship going on between Leon and Mathilda is revealed. It's not exactly funny, not even really cringe worthy. It just is. The third scene is when Mathilda decides to pay a visit to the man who murdered her family. She follows the man into the bathroom, and waits. Suddenly, he (Oldman) appears out from behind a door. The language used, the tenseness of the two off of one another, it's simply the most terrifying scene in the picture (aside from the first violent turning point).
So, basically, when Leon finished, I think I realized that my reaction was this: if I had seen this film when I was younger, be it in high school or even middle school, I would've responded to it even more strongly than I do now. There's something very visceral about the nature of violence and killing, as well as the mentor/pupil relationship, that Besson really gets down pat. While some of the situations have the chance of slipping into clichés, it doesn't happen very often. Leon: The Professional, is hard-hitting when it has to be, soft and funny when it can, and does stay with the viewer a few days after it's over.
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