A stylish and eccentric thriller that feels thoroughly French despite the English-speaking cast and the New York setting, with Natalie Portman in what surely must be one of the most memorable child performances of all time.
Written and directed by Luc Besson, Leon follows the eponymous assassin, played by Jean Reno, who displays his ruthless professional brilliance in the brutal opening scene. When he’s off work, Leon is a quiet loner who can’t read or write, enjoys a glass of milk and Gene Kelly films, carefully tends his house plant, and sleeps upright in his chair. He has no qualms about his occupation, but draws the line at taking jobs involving women or children.
One day, rather than causing some bloody mayhem, Leon becomes a witness to one, when a corrupt and sadistic DEA agent (Gary Oldman in an outrageously hammy mode) and his minions massacre a family living next door over missing drugs. The only survivor is 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who Leon hesitantly takes in. Against all of his better judgment, Leon lets Mathilda stay, and, at the insistence of his precocious charge who thirsts for revenge, teaches her the violent skills of his trade.
The film is packed with style and visual flair, and Oldman’s unhinged turn as the Beethoven-loving piece of work is very entertaining. But the movie belongs to Reno and Portman, who are both exceptional, and the fascinating dynamic between Leon and Mathilda. A story about an independent loner who suddenly has the responsibilities of a father figure thrust upon him is nothing new, but Besson’s movie puts a rather unconventional spin on it. For one thing, such story doesn’t often involve the said surrogate father teaching a 12-year-old girl how to shoot joggers in the Central Park from the roof of a building.
In a different movie, Mathilda and Leon would have been the two damaged people who find stability and happiness in each other that was missing in their lives, but Leon upends that notion by portraying the relationship in a far more dysfunctional way, while still keeping the touching and affecting side of it. While Leon is weirdly childlike and awkward for his age, Mathilda constantly tries to hide her naivety and seem worldlier and more mature than she really is. Struggling to deal with her trauma, she develops an uncomfortable crush on Leon that neither of them are emotionally equipped to deal with. The film makes it clear that Leon has no intention of reciprocating, but these Lolita-esque vibes would surely have resulted in a massive social media backlash had the movie been released today.
With its mix of sweet and twisted, mainstream thriller and French arthouse, explosive action and intimate storytelling, Leon is a thrilling piece of cinema. It’s something of a pity to think that it would be a while before Portman got a role as good or as complex as her debut.