Leon, not only offers thrills and action in plentiful amounts, but also delivers, with superb performances from the three main leads, Jean Reno, as Leon, Natalie Portman, as Mathilda and Gary Oldman, as Norman Stansfield, a corrupt government official whose maniacal greed leads to murder on the streets of New York.
Leon, a highly trained hitman, is thrust into looking after newly orphaned Mathilda, a lonely 12 year old girl, after her parents, and entire family is killed in a house raid involving drugs, fronted by Norman. Leon is adverse to this change, but Matilda, with premature maturity, convinces Leon to take her in. When Mathilda realizes that Leon is what he refers to as “a cleaner”, her course of action becomes apparent. Taking her younger brother’s unrighteous death as a motive for revenge, Mathilda begs Leon to teach her the tricks of his trade, so that she, who could never forgive or forget the man who killed her family, can pay him his just deserves.
Their unconventional relationship slowly develops, and they gradually open up to one another, subconsciously realising that each has the ability to salve the internal pain of the other, providing something that they were both initially lacking. Mathilda, viewing Leon as the father figure, that she never really had, and too, someone to offer companionship that she never received from her family members. In turn, she offers Leon an alternative view to life, making him realise that there is more to existence, than killing, and looking after what is revealed to be his best friend, a pot plant. Gun cleaning, target practice and assassination theory provide a twisted sense of courtship in their relationship, and Mathilda gradually develops sexual attraction towards Leon, something that he does not welcome.
By following small leads, Mathilda eventually works her way to attempting to kill Norman herself, but walks straight into his trap, inviting capture upon herself. Leon comes to the rescue, but what ensues, is a fantastic scene, depicting Leon’s ruthless killing technique, as he slowly but surely deals with the hoards of police officers that Stansfield has ordered to eliminate him. He ensures Mathilda’s safety, sacrificing himself in order to let the girl who showed him life was worth living for, escape down a shaft in the crumbling wall. The action packed ending evokes excitement in the viewer, and creates a sense of urgency towards the character, as we want him to survive and be reunited with both Mathilda, and his beloved plant. His death however is not unrewarded, as he manages to take out Mathilda’s enemy in a gratuitous display of pyrotechnics. The ending, sad but hard hitting, shows Mathilda planting the plant, being the embodiment of Leon, in a school ground, finally providing him with roots, something that he always yearned.
Leon is a very slick thriller, providing action set pieces, with minimal plot progression, instead, the main characters relationships are refined and built upon, (even further in the “version integrale”, a directors cut featuring more character building between Leon and Mathilda.) Key scenes discuss the characters personalities and deeper feelings, and we become genuinely attached to both. Role reversal is seen between the two, Leon being childlike, with lacking emotions, and the inability to read to write, and Mathilda, with street sense and maturity way beyond her years, still treated as a little girl.
Jean Reno captures the emotionless visage of Leon perfectly, playing the role primarily with mannerisms and body language showing his reaction to a situation. Cold hearted and ruthless when killing, uncomfortable when confronted with compassion from Mathilda.
Gary Oldman does very well in acting as a deranged and corrupted officer, and his inherently evil presence gives the audience a sense of wanting to back away from the character in close up shots. Stansfield’s signature love of Beethoven is both disturbing, and deliberately slightly comical, as it is the direct opposite to his cold, dark character.
Portman excellently portrays a victim of society’s ills, the perfect example of innocence corrupted, and while some may express discomfort with Mathilda’s sexuality, her relationship with Leon is basically one of a father – daughter, mentor – student ilk. The real strength of the film is the central relationship between Mathilda and Leon. Although not well founded in reality, these two characters mesh nicely, and create what is essentially (alongside the matter-of-fact violence and action scenes), the central point of this drama fuelled, action thriller.
The musical score, composed by Eric Serra, fits the film perfectly. Emotionally orchestral pieces mixed with more typically French instrumentation to accompany scenes of dramatic device, and more upbeat, pulsing tones, to run alongside the more action packed ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ action set pieces. An almost constant use of sleigh bells portrays a sense of uncomfortableness in the viewer, as the instrument itself is uncommon of films of this nature.