“I like these calm little moments before the storm.”
It is strange to think that the masterpiece, Léon, was the French Director Luc Besson's first US hit. Stranger still when you realise that he has actually only directed a handful of films in his entire career - most of them in his native French. His first proper feature film came to our screens back in the eighties, the little-known Le Dernier Combat. Largely devoid of dialogue, and shot in black-and-white, it depicted a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic future where survival was the name of the game. It was also his first film with the great Jean Reno, his favoured protégé (Like DeNiro or DiCaprio to Scorsese). His next endeavour, Subway, starring Christopher Lambert, was a more obscure tale of strange individuals on the Metro. It is possibly his least accessible work, but it did showcase more of Besson's very distinctive style and way of film-making. It too had a brief role for Reno, albeit in the role of a drummer wearing bad shorts.
I would have to say that The Big Blue was the first decent Besson film, again with Jean Reno (and this time Rosanna Arquette). It had a more epic feel to it, exploring the world of free-diving and the mysticism behind the big blue ocean below (a favoured theme of the Director, which he would explore further to great effect in Atlantis). Then came Nikita - now we're talking - this is Besson at his best, at least in terms of his French film career, showcasing all of his style in an environment which suited it: the world of assassins. Nikita starred Anna Parillaud in the title role as a reformed drug addict given a job as an assassin, alongside the great French actor Tcheky Karyo and, of course, Besson regular Reno. It was in this film that Reno was cast as Victor, the Cleaner - a highly skilled assassin called upon to 'clean up' missions gone wrong. He was a great character dressed in a distinctive long wool coat concealing many silenced pistols, and wearing trademark sunglasses and hat. All but the style of hat remained in Reno's transition from Victor to Léon, a story written in order to fully exploit a fantastic (and terribly underused) character, and originally even entitled 'The Cleaner'.
“Do you clean anyone?”
“No women, no kids, that's the rules.”
Léon is an assassin - the best - who is called upon for the most difficult operations, and who does a clinical, precise job: always getting his target. He is introduced to us on a mission, and it soon becomes apparent that he is something of a super-assassin, silently slipping nooses around the necks of unsuspecting bodyguards, lurking in air vents or stairwells, or merely in the shadows right behind his intended victim. Taking pride in his work, Léon is a consummate professional. But, as with all great heroes (or anti-heroes) he has a soft spot, and it is for a young girl who lives in his apartment block.
Mathilda is already at a low point in her life when corrupt DEA Agents turn up at her door. Her drug-dealing dad has re-married, leaving her with an uncaring stepmother and an abusive step-sister, and the only thing in her life worth anything is her four-year-old brother. So when the DEA take out her entire family, including her little brother, she has no one to turn to and appears on the doorstep of the reclusive hitman, Léon. When he lets her in, he opens the door to no end of trouble, and she turns his world upside down for better and worse. Because whilst she brings some much needed companionship, humour and light into his life, she also has a bounty on her head - the corrupt DEA Agents know that she is still alive and are looking for her.
“Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?”
“Always like this.”
What follows is a beautifully painted tale of life and death, love and hate, revenge and redemption, played out perfectly - like a symphony - from start to finish. Running the opening credits over his signature rolling landscape (in Nikita it was the cobbled street, here it is the Atlantic Ocean) and then through the streets of New York, Besson brings more style to the first five minutes than most directors manage over an entire movie. The close-ups, the use of slow-motion, even the way his characters move around the screen - it is one big ballet - albeit a dance of death. His ideas too, are unique, both in terms of script and story. He creates a world where a hitman - a man who takes other people's lives for money - is the hero, and where a cop - a man who is supposed to protect and serve the public - is the villain. It's not as if this hasn't been done before or since, but Besson does it so effortlessly and with such panache. The way the villain cracks open his pills before an operation, twisting and contorting his neck and face whilst the drugs kick in, and the way the hero grabs and shields the girl, enveloping her and protecting her from bullets and explosions without a thought for anything but her safety, these are all shots that Besson creates with the express intention of painting a picture of good and evil. And if there was one shot that encapsulates the sentiment of the entire movie, it would be the moment when Mathilda is standing in Léon's doorway, with all the horror in her life right behind her and about to smother her, all the while crying for him to save her - and then, as he opens the doors to her, the darkness cast upon her gives way to the light. This is a defining moment not only in the movie, but also in Besson's career - the pinnacle of his film history. And with Léon he created a film that oozed style, but, for the first time, did not do so at the price of substance.
“Death is whimsical today.”
Of course this stylishly-directed, intelligent action film is helped no end by a tremendous score which follows the story in every detail: even ceasing at the click of the fingers of one of the characters. When a scene requires tension, the score draws it out of you, building the shots and exploding the action onto the screen. At the same time, in moments of emotion, it is much more reflective or positively passionate, really making you feel for the characters and their plight. Eric Serra is the masterful composer behind this score and, if you have any doubts as to his genius, then watch Nikita or The Big Blue or pretty-much any other Luc Besson film and listen to the way he brings scenes to life - really making the audience feel every single thing from joy to fear by the skill of the orchestral arrangement. There are some great composers out there, most of the best being recognisable to the point of being repetitive but Serra is capable of both hauntingly distinctive music as well as unusual and creative innovation with every note. His composition for Léon carries the movie from start to finish, with barely a couple of breaks for alternate tracks (Bjork and Sting) along the way. It is one of the best scores that I have ever heard.
Last, but far from least, there is the cast. With the aforementioned Jean Reno bringing some fantastic drive and professionalism to his character, we see that he too has reached the peak of his career. Apart from his roles in many of Besson's films, Reno has also made a name for himself playing tough, no-nonsense individuals in almost every Hollywood film that he has been in since. Whether playing a bad-guy opposite Cruise's hero in the convoluted but clever Brian De Palma's Mission Impossible movie or a special ops soldier trying to take the reigns of a ludicrously big fire-breathing monster in the disappointing Godzilla, Reno always brings the same power to the role. He even secured a lead part opposite Robert DeNiro himself in the excellent John Frankenheimer movie Ronin, also returning to his native France to make a flurry of films, including the notable mystery thrillers The Crimson Rivers 1 and 2 and the Visitéur comedies. It is a shame that these days he has been somewhat relegated to lacklustre cameo roles such as in the disappointing adaptation of the Da Vinci Code or the insipid Pink Panther remakes. But I have hopes that his upcoming 22 Bullets may offer something of a comeback, and in the meantime we can take solace in this, the pinnacle of his career.
“The rifle is the first weapon you learn how to use, because it lets you keep your distance from the client. The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you learn.”
Reno, quite simply, is Léon. The role was written for and around him, and there is nobody else who could have even attempted to play this part. Half cold killer and half lonely child, it is also one of the most well rounded characters that he has ever portrayed in a Besson flick. In fact, Léon's character has even gained an extra dimension in the transferral from Nikita to Léon, simply because of Mathilda, who is played by the now ultra-famous and extremely lovely Natalie Portman. Back then, she was an unknown twelve-year-old girl tasked with portraying, convincingly, a girl of the same age who had lost her entire family in a brutal massacre and fallen in love with a middle-aged hitman. And not a childhood crush, she was supposed to show true love. How on earth is anybody that young expected to do that? And yet, with every breath, every tear, and every smile, this young actress brought her character to life and made her the Juliet to his Romeo or, more aptly, the Bonnie to his Clyde. Portman has been rocketing towards stardom ever since, securing smaller parts in movies like the tremendous Al Pacino / Robert DeNiro thriller Heat and then getting her biggest break as that Princess in those Star Wars prequels. With Neil Jordan's Closer - starring Clive Owen, Jude Law and Julia Roberts, we discovered a sexier and more risqué character than she has ever portrayed before, and it seemed that Portman effortlessly made the transition to 'adult' roles - although some of her characters have always felt wildly mature beyond their years. The Wachowski's V for Vendetta and the underrated indie classic Garden State have both added noteworthy notches to her resume but it's her upcoming collaboration with Darren Aronofsky for The Black Swan, that has truly piqued my interest.
Of course there cannot be a hero without a villain. So it's lucky that we have the fantastic Gary Oldman taking up the reins. Perfectly cast as the corrupt, and downright evil DEA Agent Stansfield this also pretty-much stands out as a peak in Oldman's career. A tremendous actor, famed for putting body and soul into his roles, that fact is never more evident than when he gives his Beethoven-inspired drug-induced rant about classical music during the horrific raid towards the start of the movie. Although he made his directorial debut with the painfully good study of domestic violence and alcoholism, Nil By Mouth, then took small but good parts in various films from JFK and True Romance to Hannibal, and even (took another part) as a rather strangely coiffeured villain in Luc Besson's fantastical sci-fi The Fifth Element, opposite the lovely and unique Milla Jovovich, he has never surpassed the absolute fury of his role in Léon. And if you like him here, you should check out the vastly underrated Romeo is Bleeding. He's a fantastic actor and I think he has since gone on to make a great Commissioner Gordon in the tremendous new Batman films, even if the role does not fully do justice to this man's abilities.
“I take no pleasure in taking life if it's from a person who doesn't care about it.”
This is the best movie that we have ever seen from Luc Besson, and the big question is whether we will ever see another decent film directed by him. You see, since The Fifth Element, and the vastly disappointing Angel-A he has only produced and written films. Now whilst these have often been entertaining - the action-packed Transporter trilogy, the sleeper hit Taken, and the excellent French Taxi trilogy (not the horrible, ripped-off, Hollywood remake) - they have not been in the same league as Léon and Nikita. It's a real shame to see such wasted talent and I hope that his roster for forthcoming films (which currently includes just animations) vastly improves in the near future.
Now, whilst I think that the theatrical version of Léon was a pretty-much perfect production that made my top 3 all-time films, if there was anything in it that audiences found difficult to handle, it was the relationship between Léon and Mathilda. However this is where the director's cut makes all the difference. Containing over twenty minutes of extra footage, the director's cut adds to all of the best elements from the theatrical cut - in terms of dialogue, acting and action - but mostly, and most importantly, it develops the relationship between Léon and Mathilda, notably adding to Léon's character and background as well. For those who have not seen, let alone purchased the Director's Cut - 'Version Integrale' - there are some spoilers ahead so you'll have to take my words and my word for it that it is a vastly superior cut to an already tremendous movie.
The first of the additional bits that we get is an extra moment of dialogue between Léon and Mathilda during one of their first conversations where he asks how old she is and she lies and tells him that she is 18. Then we get a much more significant and rather dramatic scene where Mathilda puts Léon's feelings for her to the ultimate test - playing Russian Roulette, and with three bullets, no less. Léon proceeds to explain to her the price of revenge, hinting at his own painful experience in the matter - something which he expands upon later on in this extended cut.
“I want love, or death. That's it.”
The most significant chunk of footage runs from about 1.10 to 1.25, starting with a montage of assassination missions that Léon and Mathilda go on together, we also get a scene with them celebrating Mathilda's first mission. This run of extra footage concludes with a dramatic scene where a hit gets ugly and Léon first performs the 'ring trick' which he goes on to use in the final confrontation of the movie. A few minutes later we see a new scene where Léon introduces his student to his handler and mentor, Tony, who is none too happy about Mathilda's youth. Then, prior to Léon's first 'private' mission, we get some extra dialogue between them where he tells her that she cannot come on the mission because it is 'too big'. Whilst he is out on said mission there is an extra scene where she ' befriends' some kids in the street below the apartment.
Oh, and then there's the Big One - perhaps not in terms of duration or action, but certainly in terms of character development and depth. Mathilda overtly attempts to seduce Léon - asking him outright to sleep with her. He refuses and goes on to explain why, telling her the story of his first true love, his first hit and how he ended up in the U.S. She finally persuades him to sleep with her, but merely side-by-side in the bed together. Of course, cutting this - potentially the most controversial of the additions - out of the final cut, had the unfortunate effect of leaving it in doubt as to what exactly happened between them as all you see in the theatrical cut is them waking up in bed together!
“Leon, what exactly do you do for a living?”
“You mean you're a hitman?”
Our Review Ethos