Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Leon

Whatever you do, don’t mistake Leon for a crime drama. It’s not, despite first appearances to the contrary. It’s not even much of an action movie, although the action that is here is exemplary.

So if this story of a hit man isn’t really a crime drama and isn’t really an action film, then what is it? You could describe it as Lolita reimagined as a film noir, but you’d be wrong. There’s a searching tenderness here that Nabokov — and noir — would likely deny. You could say it’s a parable of the destruction and reinvention of the “nuclear family,” but you’d be missing the vertiginous European spin it puts on its American milieu (this is a Hollywood-financed movie from a French director, after all). Finally, you could call it a fairy tale, and there you might be closest to the mark. Whatever else it may be, Leon is a fable about the violence of growing up.

Leon himself (Jean Reno) is a hit man of European origin who works in New York City, describing himself as a “cleaner.” (You may recognize the term from director Luc Besson’s previous La Femme Nikita, which featured Reno as “Victor the cleaner”) Even so, he’s a hit man with principles — no women, no kids. So when 12-year-old Matilda (Natalie Portman, in a decisively magnetic screen debut) returns to her apartment building with a bag of groceries and knocks on Leon’s door instead of her own, he can’t bring himself to leave her out in the corridor. You see, a gang of thugs led by a weirdo DEA agent named Ben (a very corrupt Gary Oldman) has executed Matilda’s family in cold blood (yes, it’s that kind of movie — her father is apparently a middleman for drug runners) and hasn’t yet realized that she’s missing.

Leon makes it clear that Matilda isn’t welcome to stay, and she immediately starts looking for a way to insinuate herself into his life. Primarily, she needs someplace to hide as Ben and his goons search for the missing girl. Ideally, she’d like to use a wad of cash she recovers from the apartment to pay Leon to hunt down and kill her family’s murderers. She cares not one whit for her parents and older sister, who were portrayed in earlier scenes as nightmarish caricatures of an urban family, but wants the death of her little brother avenged. Leon refuses, but in the course of conversation and negotiation these two characters edge ever closer to one another.

Finally, Matilda convinces Leon to train her to become a cleaner. If the film’s frank awareness of her incipient sexuality makes some viewers uncomfortable, her character’s disposition toward premeditated violence may turn off even more of them. The subtext here is that Matilda is a girl with ineffectual parents and insensitive educators who has probably learned most of what she knows of the world from television. (More specifically, she seems familiar with a European idea of American pop culture — in one comic scene, she plays charades with Leon, acting out Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin to exactly zero recognition.) Her canny coquettishness and relative ease with guns and violence only illustrate her conversance with entertainment icons. Leon, meanwhile, is in many ways Matilda’s opposite. He’s preternaturally adept with his arsenal, but he cannot read or write. He’s a stone-faced killing machine when he’s on a job, but he’s childlike and vulnerable when he’s spending time with Matilda. The relationship between the two of them grows into something that neither of them fully understands, perched somewhere between familial affection and erotic love. If such a notion sounds distasteful, all I can recommend is that you see the movie, which is to my eyes neither lurid nor exploitative.

On my recent re-viewing of the picture I was surprised at how little gunfire is actually involved in Leon. Certainly my memories of the movie’s two fiercest set pieces led me to chalk this up as one of the finer action movies of the last decade, and Besson does direct those scenes with the stylistic touches of a virtuoso. But the main reason that the film packs such a wallop is that it’s restrained in many ways, taking time to develop its characters to some sort of fruition. In the face of critical kvetching about the over-the-top sensibilities of this or that soulless big-budget action movie, Leon stands as a relatively pastoral lesson in how to develop a story and milk little bursts of violence for maximum impact.

Despite Besson’s mastery of technique, Leon‘s success is due in large part to its elegant performances. While I do wish Oldman had played his character a little more straight, I also recognize that you don’t hire Oldman if you don’t want to go over the top. But as Leon, Reno is both powerful and frail, convincingly portraying a hardened but needy tough guy of almost infinite sensitivity. Natalie Portman’s performance is all the more impressive for being her debut. While her delivery doesn’t always seem fresh or spontaneous, it is singleminded and rich in enthusiasm. Screen debuts this compelling are rare; truly charismatic performances from actors so young are rarer still. (For my money, Portman puts the grossly mannered performances of Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire and Anna Paquin in The Piano to shame.) Danny Aiello has a nice turn as an insidious father figure who is, um, taking care of Leon’s finances.

Leon was originally released in the U.S. under the title The Professional, with more than 20 minutes shorn from Besson’s preferred cut — mostly from the midsection — after the film tested poorly. The response from American critics was decidedly mixed, although many regarded it cooly, as a hollow exercise in wanton stylistics. Some viewers noted their discomfort with the sexuality of Matilda, or with the matter-of-fact nature of the violence. Some of the complaints and questions about the film are finally answered by the release of Besson’s “Version Integrale,” with those edited sequences restored. Among the restorations: an even more stylized approach to violence in wry scenes featuring Leon making his rounds with Matilda in tow as a trainee; a scene in which Matilda puts a gun to her head and makes a play for Leon’s attention (Russian Roulette is, apparently, an emotional language that he understands); a backstory explaining the previously ambiguous circumstances that led Leon to America; and finally, a bit of dialogue wherein Matilda actually propositions her mentor (Leon declines).

This version of the film has not been released to U.S. theaters, and with just $32 million in domestic grosses, it seems unlikely that Columbia will re-release it here. But the so-called Leon: Version Integrale played in theaters worldwide, and has begun drifting into the U.S. as a Japanese laserdisc and on bootleg videotapes. The laserdisc is a terrific transfer, with most of the Japanese subtitles appearing in the black space underneath the letterboxed image. Leon is not a film that gains tremendously in its widescreen version, but the restored sequences do make a difference. This “director’s cut” is highly recommended to fans of Besson’s work.



As I sit down to write, I’m trying to remember the last movie that actually frightened me. Maybe it was Jurassic Park, ancient critters all agrowl with hunger, or The Fugitive, when shots fired from Tommy Lee Jones’ gun threatened to send me through the ceiling. Wasn’t the suffocating dread of the final scenes of Heavenly Creatures a kind of terror? What about the teasing not-quite-presence of the killer in the first half of Se7en, or the shroud of pessimism draped across that film’s final scenes? And I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted out of a movie theater as badly as I did when that damn baby dropped off the ceiling in Trainspotting.

These are among the movie memories that I cherish most, for a number of reasons. First, there’s the sheer visceral pleasure of a mild adrenaline rush, of a physical reaction to a movie that sets your heart pounding and for a few moments both erases your awareness of this thing called “the movies” and enhances your experience of it. And then there’s the intellectual pleasure of going back and rolling the film all over again in the theater of your mind, trying to remember which scene it was that set you reeling, and perhaps wondering why you reacted that way.

As budgets get bigger, presumably to encompass an audience’s ever-growing hunger for more spectacular special effects, it seems that suspense gets smaller. Who needs suspense when you’ve got a big digital tornado throwing cows and semis across the screen? At least Twister had a sense of humor, and reverence for the awe-inspiring power of what it was trying to recreate. But Independence Day, for instance, scuttled its own showcase scenes by intercutting the jaw-dropping annihilation of Manhattan — which gave me chills in the ID4 trailers — with dumb and dumber fillips, like the flamingly gay Harvey Fierstein on the phone with his mom, or Vivica Fox saving her pooch from a firestorm. Cue laughter and applause, respectively, in the wake of the world’s first feel-good mass murder sequence.

My point? More movies like Breakdown, please. Simply put, this is a terrifying movie that presses the right buttons early on and then capitalizes on your vulnerability. Having seen the “yeah, right” theatrical trailer, which efficiently telegraphs Breakdown‘s set-up, I was ready to give it a miss until all the kind reviews came out. And that’s why I read critics — Breakdown is a veritable object lesson in how to take a tired, unlikely retread of a “high concept” and drive it into white-knuckle territory.

By casting the likable Kurt Russell as Jeff Taylor and then, most importantly, sticking with him throughout the course of the narrative, writer/director Jonathan Mostow first invites us into Jeff’s rather mundane world and then strings us along as the walls of safety built up around his life collapse. Jeff and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), have pulled up roots in Massachusetts to move cross-country. After some small talk and an ominous run-in with a scuzzy redneck, the couple find themselves in trouble when their Jeep breaks down in the Utah desert. As it does in Spielberg’s Duel, evil arrives in the guise of a big truck. This truck has a face, though, and it’s that of an amiable trucker named Red (J.T. Walsh) who agrees to give Amy a lift to the nearest pay phone while Jeff stays with the car.

Now, it’s easy to wonder why in the world Jeff would let his wife ride off with a total stranger, but the challenge of Breakdown is naturally to imagine yourself in that selfsame situation. Far from home and friendless, even the most independent-minded fella has to place his trust somewhere he’d rather not have to place it. And only in the movies would we suspect that a professional trucker would moonlight as a body snatcher. But Amy disappears, never turning up at Belle’s Diner, where she’s supposed to rendezvous with Jeff. The customers have never seen her. And when Jeff chases down Red’s rig, Amy is nowhere to be found. Worse, Red claims that he’s never seen Jeff before in his life.

What ensues is an outlandish but deliberately paced and wholly involving thriller. It takes place in the haunted emptiness of the American West, and is appropriately shot in (non-anamorphic) widescreen. The percussive score by Basil Poledouris sets an edgy mood. Film editing is key to impact, making the most of plot twists and chase scenes. Also critical is Russell’s performance as a fish out of water, removed physically, mentally and emotionally from the reassuring trappings of civilization. The performances are uniformly excellent, as well they must be to fend off undue scrutiny of the story. When Jeff flags down a cop on the highway, he behaves pretty much exactly as we’d expect a cop to behave. Or is the cop in on the conspiracy? For that matter, is the surly owner of Belle’s in cahoots with the unseen villains? Then again, Walsh’s denial of culpability seems so genuine that we may start to wonder whether Jeff is nuts ourselves. Only Quinlan seems unusually flat and uninvolved, and she vanishes early on (an Oscar nominee, and all her agent can get her is this thankless role?).

Of course, this is a Hollywood film circa 1997, so for all its craft, Breakdown still plays nice with the audience. There’s an offhanded remark that suggests some nastiness may befall Amy, but the movie’s free of any rough stuff. Mostly it’s riveting in the manner of a Hitchcock film — high praise, indeed.

Too bad it never plumbs the psychological depths of a Hitchcock film, or makes the same terrible sense, but that’s just not part of the game plan. Instead of character development, we get a single barely-drawn character stuck in a vice grip. Next, we watch for a little more than 90 minutes as the screw is tightened and the gas pedal nears the floorboard. Only in one scene, as Jeff visits a small-town bank, does Breakdown waste its time. Elsewhere, pulse-pounding set pieces follow on the heels of plot twists, transformed characters, and other novel ideas. Some of the best come near the climax, when Jeff turns the tables by invading someone else’s privacy. In particular, the homestead where some of this action is staged reminded me oddly of another scary movie about American opportunists called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Which brings me back to movies that scare me, and how they manage it. In its own way, Breakdown is a direct descendant of the horror movie. Like Texas Chain Saw, Breakdown postulates the existence of a frightening sort of down-home subculture that subsists by feeding on the meat of hapless travelers. It shares with some of the more interesting modern horror films (Bernard Rose’s Candyman, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs) a subtext about class differences, and the resentment that brews in the lower class when the better off breeze through their lives. Money — how much things cost, how much you’ve got in the bank — is an undercurrent. And even more shamelessly than those scary movies, Breakdown taps the timeliest fears of our era, gleefully and perhaps cynically demonstrating what happens when we find out that our $30,000 sport utility vehicle isn’t enough to protect us from all the elements.


Leo and Kate in Titanic

From the underwater opening scenes, which are as neon-blue as anything from James Cameron’s science fiction opus The Abyss, it’s clear that Titanic will be a technophile’s delight.

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Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese’s movie about the Dalai Lama would be a model of efficiency? It took James Cameron 194 minutes to sink theTitanic — and, hell, it took Scorsese 178 minutes just to cover Las Vegas (in 1995’s Casino). But his elegy for a free Tibet takes in the years from 1937 to 1959 with not a moment to spare. Kundun is a luminous, meditative work that dissolves from moment to moment with the aplomb of an epic poem. It’s also, against all odds, the most astonishing film of 1997.

The man who made Mean Streets and Taxi Driver has been ensconced, enshrined, and nearly embalmed as the living master of classical American moviemaking. And if such stuff as Cape Fear and Casino has seemed at best creaky and at worst embarrassing compared to the man’s earlier work, then Kundun — his finest picture since Raging Bull — could hardly be a more radical departure. It recalls the solemnity of The Last Temptation of Christ and the introspection of The Age of Innocence. But Kundun is more magnificent than either of those films. Working in full-on expressionist mode, cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo), film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull), and composer Philip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi) manage to give bracing form to the ineffable and deliver history as a shimmering bolt to the heart.

In just 128 minutes, Scorsese depicts the boyhood and adolescence of Tenzin Gyatso (nee Lhamo Dhondrub), the fourteenth Dalai Lama — portrayed at various ages by four different actors. Discovered at the age of 2, the toddler (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang) is believed to be the next in a series of incarnations of the Buddha of Compassion — the spiritual and secular leader of the Tibetan people. (The monks test him by placing the previous Dalai Lama’s possessions in front of him alongside “decoys” and waiting to see which items he recognizes.) Seldom is the on-screen characterization of so young a child this complete. The young Dalai Lama is inquisitive, impetuous and more than a little pleased with himself. He also seems mildly baffled by the goings-on as he and his family are spirited away from their tiny home on the Chinese border to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where he will be trained in matters of religion, politics, and humility. As he grows older, certain political matters are kept from him (more than once he is told by his elders, “this is not for your eyes”) and others are revealed only gradually.

As he grows into adolescence, he has a screening room constructed, where he sits and soaks up the lessons of movies and newsreels — gifts from the West — and then pores over an old atlas, trying to figure out what’s happening in the world. In one scene, he springs silently to his feet at the image of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, accompanied by chilly narration; his dismay is wordless, but palpable.

Meanwhile, he is made gradually aware of the threat of the Communist Chinese. As a nation literally built on concepts of nonviolence, Tibet has an army of just 5,000 ill-equipped men; it is, however, strategically positioned to serve the Chinese well as a military stronghold. Once the Communists come to power in 1949, they assert their authority over China. When Tibet resists, the Chinese army invades. Ever hopeful that a peaceful resolution to the conflict may be found — even musing briefly on the similarities between Buddhism and socialism — the Dalai Lama (now a young adult, played with great tranquility by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) travels to Peking to meet with Mao Zedong (Richard Lin), who instructs him cordially but coldly that “religion is poison.” And it’s here that the spiritual and secular leader of Tibet realizes what awaits his people.

Most crushing of all is his eventual realization that he must flee Tibet for the sanctuary of India — the Chinese send him a letter stating their intention to shell his palace in Lhasa in order to quash the mounting Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. It’s with this decision that Kundun accelerates into a breathless whirl of pure sound and vision. Scorsese brings a multitude of imagery to bear on Kundun’s journey into exile, the reeling emotional cynosure of his heretofore subdued tale. You may feel your eyes snap open wide. The sculpted, colored sands that make up an exquisite mandala are photographed over and over again in close-up, as stunning as the Himalayas themselves, before they’re swept away and poured into the water. Glass’s splendid score continues to tumble across the screen as narrative gives way to a purely cinematic poem. This story is shaped by history and politics, but it’s driven by inner forces, by oracles, dreams, and visions. It takes hold in a way that few films ever do; it immerses you in color and sound and drenches you with sorrow. In terms of form and technique, it’s leagues more exciting than anything else in American film this year.

Melissa Mathison wrote the screenplay with input from the Dalai Lama himself, who remains in exile and has reportedly given the project his blessing. It’s incisive and understated, and it’s hard to tell from the finished product just what the film must have looked like on paper. Reverent and spirited, it has the feeling of something molded and shaped by supple human hands. It’s also a very personal film that takes great risks and is most assuredly not for everybody. (Mainstream critical reception has been lukewarm.) Anything but talky, Kundun may well be the antithesis of the comfortable Hollywood epic.

For Kundun is just barely a “historical epic,” at least in the way the cinema usually considers those words. Call it a spiritual epic. And it’s also a story about growing up, seen entirely through the eyes of a holy man. (Kundun himself is just six years older than Scorsese, no stranger to religion himself, who must have felt an affinity with his tale.) At the base level, Kundun is a forceful evocation of the feelings that a boy has as he begins to learn about the cruelties of the world outside his own sphere, and of the sorrow he feels when he learns that he can’t put things right — all he can do, in this case, is persevere. In this tale, Scorsese finds the stuff of a film quite unlike any other. After so many movies about naked aggression, he’s made one that presupposes the existence of kindness, wondering at how long that gentle nature has endured in the face of chaos.

Deconstructing Harry


At a point in his career where Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days are his “earlier, funny films,” Woody Allen has finally managed to start making Woody Allen movies again.

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Wings of Desire

Peter Falk in Wings of Desire

When I sat down again with Wings of Desire, showing it to a friend who had not yet encountered it, I approached it, as always, from the skeptic’s viewpoint. Once again, I was ready to interrogate my own feelings toward this, one of my very favorite movies.

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The Sweet Hereafter


Sarah Polley and Ian Holm in <em>The Sweet Hereafter</em>

Like his countryman David Cronenberg, Egoyan is one of the few great directors working today whose films reflect not only a consistent worldview, but also a numinous mood. (Also like Cronenberg, Egoyan has set one of this year’s most memorable scenes inside of an automatic car wash.) Appealing no more strenuously to the intellect than to our innate sense for beauty, Egoyan’s films look chilly but eventually surrender warmth. They alienate, distress and confound us. What’s most miraculous is that they close up the wounds they’ve made.

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Starship Troopers

<em>Starship Troopers</em>

I’m making it official — I’ve given up on Paul Verhoeven. (2010 update: I didn’t actually give up on Paul Verhoeven. But I was really frustrated by Starship Troopers at the time. Looking back, the film just seems like a wonderful joke. I should probably revisit.)

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