Title: Leon (1994)
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello
The most controversial aspect of Luc Besson’s Leon (1994) is the suggested romance between Mathilda, the 12 year old girl who wants to become an assassin, and Leon, her protector and mentor. Mathilda is a little girl who lives in a very troubled household in which everybody is always screaming at each other, everybody spews hatred, you know, you’re a-typical ass backwards dysfunctional family. Mathilda’s father even steals cocaine from his drug dealers and therefore places his entire family in jeopardy! Of course Mathilda hates living there, which is why she spends most of her time outside of the house, smoking cigarettes behind her abusive father’s back. One day, Mathilda’s father has to answer to a crooked DEA officer about some missing cocaine, and since the coke never turns up, Mathilda’s father is killed, and so is her entire family! Lucky for Mathilda, she was out in the convenience store buying milk for Leon. One thing leads to another and Leon ends up taking Mathilda, unwillingly at first, into his life. Will this new lifestyle workout for Leon? Can he take care of something else other than himself?
So why does a little girl fall in love with a man three times her age? Well, she develops feelings for Leon because he protects and cares for her, something she never got from her family. Leon also ends up saving her life at one point. He doesn’t slap her around the way her father did either, so she begins to fall for the guy even though he is considerably older than she is. Relationships with huge generational gaps are not unheard of in cinema, examples of this are Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (1997), Harold and Maude (1971) and Birth (2004). But after a test screening in L.A. in which the audience reacted negatively to Mathilda’s advances towards Leon, these elements were deemed too racy and so director Luc Besson decided to edit the film in order to omit those Mathilda/Leon scenes that displayed some intimacy between the characters. Jean Reno says he wanted to portray the character of Leon as slow of mind, as a character who wouldn’t even think about having a relationship with Mathilda; this element of Leon comes across exactly like that. He is shocked beyond measure when Mathilda confesses her feelings to him. In reality, Mathilda’s affections come off as childlike and more than likely misguided, but you get the vibe that her feelings are of genuine affection for Leon. If you watch the American version of the film entitled ‘The Professional’, then you are getting the edited version. You’ll get less scenes of this interplay between Leon and Mathilda, but if you get the deluxe edition, then you’ll see a bit more of what goes on between them, which by the way is not in bad taste, Luc Besson handles things extremely well displaying Mathilda’s affections, which come off as nothing more than a harmless child hood crush.
The film was also edited in other ways, for example, the character of Mathilda is a 12 year old girl who wants to become “a cleaner” or a hired assassin. So we have scenes of Mathilda cleaning her guns, dismantling a gun and putting it back together again, we even have a scene in which she threatens to kill herself by putting a gun to hear head. Images of kids handling guns in a film are always a risky because it’s an idea that will be seen in a negative light by ultra conservative audiences and the Motion Picture Association of America. Why? Because it’s an idea that we don’t want to propagate; the idea of children carrying instruments of death. If you choose to show scenes such as these on your film, you have to make sure that it is justified or else your film will more than likely get flamed by critics and moral snobs. Many times a film will receive a cold reception at the box office if it gratuitously displays children handling guns in one form or another. For example, Irving Kirshner’s Robocop 2 (1990) got a lot of heat because it depicted a 12 year old kid running a drug cartel, cursing like a sailor and shooting machine guns. The Monster Squad (1987) suffered from the same malady; on that one we have kids stabbing female vampires square in the chest and a character called ‘Fat Kid’ loading a shotgun, cocking it and shooting The Monster from the Black Lagoon with it. Most recently, Kick- Ass (2010) and its sequel Kick Ass 2 (2013) also got criticized for the character of Hit-Girl, a gun totting, sword carrying teen. But while the violence in some of these films I’ve mentioned might come off as gratuitous (yet tons of fun to watch) on Leon it feels justified. Mathilda feels threatened by the world she lives in, she was abused physically by her own father, she lost her entire family to a mad man and now avenging her little brother’s death is what drives her. She has nowhere else to go, and the only father figure she knows is an assassin named Leon, you do the math. I say Mathilda is a character that speaks volumes about adapting in the wake of adversity.
True, the scenes in which Mathilda asks Leon to train her to become a killer and the subsequent scenes in which he actually takes her on an assignment to kill somebody will probably result shocking to some, to me it’s just a movie with high entertainment value and good ideas. I like it when a film attempts to shake me up a bit. But behind the controversy and the violence, at heart there is a good film about two people who actually need each other. Mathilda obviously needs Leon for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but Leon is an extremely lonely man. When he is not killing, he is training or going to the movies, or cleaning his plant, which he calls his best friend. At heart, we have a man whose life is empty and sad; a man who needs the light that Mathilda brings to his life. There are some great scenes where both characters are simply having fun being all silly and goofy around each other, lightening up their lives as best they can. So the film isn’t as violent as you might be led to believe, it’s actually a sweeter film then it is violent.
An astounding element of this film is the cast; starting with Natalie Portman who was 11 years old when she was cast for this film. The numerous array of emotions she conveys on her performance is amazing and made even more amazing when we take in consideration how young she was 11 when she made this film. The casting director was going to say no to Portman because she was so young, but when Besson saw her audition, he gave her the part! The film basically revolves around the character of Mathilda so the right casting of this role was essential. The young actress who would embody Mathilda needed to convey a plethora of emotions necessary for the part. In my opinion, they couldn’t have made a better choice than Portman, who is amazing here. There’s this awesome scene where Mathilda is getting drunk in a restaurant…awesome stuff, in some scenes she's terrified, in others she's crying beyond redemption, she really displays a whole spectrum of emotions. Gary Oldman is an amazing actor who used to play a lot of villains earlier in his career and this is one of his best ones, if you ask me, Oldmans character on this film is right up there with ‘Drexl’ from True Romance (1993) in terms of craziness. Oldman is bat shit insane on this film, even more so when he takes his pills! In turn, Jean Reno plays his character with a cool mellow vibe, he’s got a childlike innocence to him; he will be the nicest killer you’ve ever met. Funny how this film makes you feel empathy for a cold blooded killer!
The idea for Leon came to Besson while making La Femme Nikita (1990), if you notice, both films share a few similarities, starting with the fact that they are both about women who want to become killers. On La Femme Nikita, Jean Reno also plays a killer who even dresses in the same fashion as Leon. Besson always felt that he could expand on this character, center a film around the killer, so he wrote Leon, always having Jean Reno in mind for the part. Funny how this film was the film that Besson made while waiting for Bruce Willis’s schedule to clear up so he could finally film The Fifth Element (1997) with him. In the interim between that waiting, Besson wrote Leon and shot it! The Fifth Element was a dream project of Besson’s, yet it is Leon, the film he made in between his big dream project that is considered to be the superior film. Me? I say they are both good on different levels, each good within their genre. So my final words is, if you haven’t seen Leon, do yourself a favor and check it out, it’s filled with awesome performances all around and let’s not forget, this was Portman’s breakout performance! She does an astounding job in this film, you’ll love her character, a little girl who struggles to survive as best she can in this harsh world.
Rating: 5 out of 5