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.