One of the most oft-filmed cities on the planet, New York takes on a renewed sense of the exotic in Luc Besson’s 1994 action drama, Leon: The Professional. Accompanied by Eric Serra’s imaginative score, Leon’s opening shots of Manhattan in the summer – a disembodied camera floating over the Hudson and Central Park – make the place look almost otherworldly.
This is entirely in keeping with the title character Leon (Jean Reno), a childlike foreigner who moves from apartment to apartment like a ghost, seemingly unnoticed among the city’s bustle and thrum. An Italian migrant, Leon works as a contract killer for Danny Aiello’s mafia boss Tony, who runs his operation from a restaurant in Little Italy. A solitary figure, Leon’s only friends are a pot plant, which he diligently places on the windowsill each morning, and the imaginary characters in the Hollywood musicals he watches at the cinema. At night, Leon sleeps bolt upright in a chair with a gun by his side – a sad, lonely man if ever there was one.
The central character’s diametric opposite is Stansfield (Gary Oldman), a corrupt DEA agent whose angry slaughter of a dysfunctional, abusive family in a neighbouring apartment results in surviving 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) taking refuge with Leon. The pair strike up an uneasy friendship, with Mathilda teaching Leon to read while Leon reluctantly agrees to teach Mathilda the tricks of the contract-killing trade.
Containing the rhythmic comic book violence and surface sheen of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (which first introduced a less detailed version of Reno’s character), Leon is also an effective dramatic triangle. Strip away all the gunplay and colourful secondary characters – the various henchmen, cops, hoteliers and mafia types – and you’re left with a lean drama containing little more than three main players.
Jean Reno turns in a magnificent performance as Leon – mumbling over his few lines, Reno’s turn is almost like that of a mime artist. Although an effective killing machine, Leon walks with an odd, awkward gait like Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. His back story, only loosely sketched in by the script, is all there to see on Reno’s expressive face: by turns sad and wide-eyed with wonder, he’s as much a lost innocent as Mathilda.
In her film debut, Natalie Portman shows remarkable composure and confidence. As the smarter, more cunning half of the screen pairing, she shows a precocious talent in terms of drama (look at the way she tearfully recites the line about a member of her late family – “She was only a half sister, and not a good half at that”) and comedy (the bit where she gives an indignant look, before firing a gun out of an apartment window).
There’s less subtlety to be found in Gary Oldman’s performance as Stansfield, but his Beethoven-obsessed maniac really is something to behold. Possessed with a furious energy, Oldman gives the impression that Stansfield could literally explode at any moment. Oldman’s no-holds-barred performance mirrors the more cartoonish excesses of Besson’s script, which asks us to believe that a group of bent cops could gun down an entire family (including a four-year-old child) in a crowded New York apartment block without any apparent witnesses, and only a casual investigation from Internal Affairs.
It has to be said, too, that the depiction of Leon and Mathilda’s relationship tips over into the unseemly at times, particularly in the Director’s Cut. The defence, perhaps, is that Leon doesn’t represent a threat to Mathilda because he’s more of a child than she is in many respects. Whatever Besson’s intentions were in the film’s more difficult scenes – particularly one in the longer cut where Mathilda professes her love for Leon – there’s one thing that saves them from being entirely objectionable: the sensitivity of the performances.
Jean Reno is utterly believable as Leon, who’s locked into a lonely servitude by the Mafia and only taught how to live like a human being by Mathilda. Mathilda, in turn, can’t help but be awestruck by an adult who, unlike her violent dead father, is gentle and trustworthy. For all its faults, it’s the warmth of these leading performances – not to mention Gary Oldman’s unforgettable baddie – that make Leon: The Professional a memorable, superbly-made action drama, even 20 years on.
Leon: The Professional 20th Anniversary Steelbook Edition is out on Blu-ray now.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.