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April 3, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Pajiba Blockbusters | April 3, 2008 |

Léon is the perfect example of why I love movies so much. Movies do all of those things that we always talk about — they make you laugh, cry, shout, scream, cover your eyes, and make you think. In my opinion, any movie that can achieve any of those reactions is worthwhile. Mrs. TK often says that one of my strangest features is that despite being something of a movie snob, it’s rare that I don’t enjoy a movie. Partially that’s because I probably avoid the real cinematic slag that we are so cursed by, but partially it’s also because of what I just mentioned — if a movie can gets a visceral, physical reaction (other than just try to gross you out — I’m looking at you, Eli Roth) out of me, I consider it to be at least somewhat successful.

Léon is one of those movies that can probably achieve all of those things for many of us. But that’s not actually why it has such a special place for me. It’s special to me because it was, I believe, the first movie that actually made me think about movies; that is to say it made me realize that there is even more to what we see on the screen than those reflexive reactions. It is one of the movies that led me down a long, convoluted path that brought me to a place such as this.

Originally known as The Professional in the United States, Léon is about an orphaned daughter of a drug dealer (Natalie Portman), who is taken in by an introverted hitman (Jean Reno) that lives in her building. While they try to figure out what to do with each other — he is an apprehensive loner who keeps no social contacts with anyone other than the local mob boss (Danny Aiello) who pays his contracts, and she is a garrulous, precocious pre-teen with a fixation on revenge and a need for a father-figure. All the while, the deranged, crooked and drug-addicted police detective who is responsible for murdering her family (a gleefully berserk Gary Oldman) is trying to track her down, while with the help of her newfound hired gun/father figure, she is trying to find him as well.

If all of this sounds rather over-the-top, well, it should. While Léon manages to merge both intense drama and kinetic action movie with stirring success, director Luc Besson is also responsible for more frenzied, seizure-inducing fare such as The Fifth Element and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Over-the-top is pretty much Besson’s bailiwick. Léon, however, is one of Besson’s best works, on par with his other beautiful assassin drama, Nikita, a.k.a. La Femme Nikita (interesting bit of trivia — the main character was inspired by “The Cleaner” in Nikita, also played by Jean Reno). What sets it and Nikita apart from some of his more hyperactive productions is the successful development of the characters; as much as I love Nikita, the characterizations here are far more engrossing. When coupled with some ingenious action sequences and a lot of tight, close-up camera work, Léon succeeds in giving you an action movie with characters whose actions and relationships are not only believable, but that you find yourself invested in.

The relationships in the movie are really its backbone, and to fully appreciate it we must begin with the relationship between the assassin, or “Cleaner,” Léon (Reno) and his inadvertent ward Matilda (Portman). Portman, in her very first big-screen role, is nothing short of marvelous. She starts out the film as simply the sullen teenager, angry at her lot in life, her abusive father and her harpy of a stepmother. She spends her days sitting in the halls of their dilapidated apartment building, glumly smoking cigarettes and waiting for life to happen. Over time, she begins to have idle conversations with Léon, who lives at the end of the same hallway. Of course, we quickly learn that Matilda’s father is not only a criminal, but a rather stupid one, for he has swindled the cop who provides him with dope — Norman Stansfield (Oldman). One day while Matilda is out buying groceries, Stansfield and his goon squad show up and in a brutal sequence of events, exterminates her entire family as his punishment. Matilda arrives late to the scene, and in one of the most heartbreaking scenes, walks past her ruined family home to Léon ‘s door, pleading urgently until she persuades her stoic neighbor to let her in and save her life.

Léon, on the other hand, has been alone his entire life and doesn’t really know how to handle his new roommate. Léon is a complete misfit, unprepared for interaction with another person, a ghost who wanders through society unnoticed — deliberately so. From his ill-fitting clothes, to his lack of understanding of popular culture (evidenced in a bizarre yet fun scene where Matilda tries to ease the tension between them by playing dress-up), to the discovery that he can neither read nor write, Léon is barely a part of humanity. In fact, this is what separates him from many other modern hitman characters — he is not suave, he hasn’t been with a woman in almost 20 years, he doesn’t have any of the smoothness or coolness of the James Bonds of the world. His life consists of watering his plant (“It’s my best friend. Always happy. No questions.”), drinking milk, exercising … and killing people. Upon taking her in, they begin a strange, tentative bonding process which fulfils the others needs. Léon learns how to become more of a real person — he learns to read, he learns to protect instead of kill (though sometimes latter leads to the former), he begins to understand that there is more to life than his gloomy, hermitic existence. At the same time, Matilda gains the father figure she’s desperately wanted for so long — and someone who eventually agrees to help her get revenge for the death of her family. Léon, after much cajoling, begins to teach Matilda what can only be described as “Assassin Theory 101” — the basic rules and techniques of being a cleaner. “No women, no kids,” he solemnly proclaims is the first rule, which is partially what sets the events in motion.

However, somewhere along the line, things change between Matilda and Léon. Matilda stops seeing him as a father figure, and begins to fall in love with him. It’s worth mentioning to those who have seen this before that I’m basing my review on the “International Edition,” which is not the same as the version that was released in U.S. theaters. The theme of her growing love/obsession with Léon is pursued much more deeply in this version, and is in many ways much more disturbing. Even in the original, edited version, the relationship was vaguely uncomfortable. However, in Besson’s original vision, Matilda has more than a crush on Léon — she wants him as a lover, despite being a mere 12 or 13 years old. It’s these scenes that also display just how damaged Matilda is — at one point, she begs him to love her back, and then with tears streaming down her face, points a loaded gun at her head, vowing to kill herself if he doesn’t. It’s a shocking scene, and you can easily see why American censors decided to cut it. But just the same, it’s a vitally important one for it shows us the full impact that Matilda’s life has had on her psyche, as well as the effect of having Léon in her life. He has given her something to care about, and she cannot stand the idea that he might not care for her — that kind of letdown she wouldn’t be able to survive.

What makes this film so remarkable is that all of it — the lonely but deadly assassin, the coquettish yet vulnerable young girl, their dysfunctional but crucial dependence on each other — are completely and utterly believable. I don’t think I’m stretching things when I say that these might be the two of the best performances you’re likely to see either actor give. Reno is at his sad-eyed best, with a soft, gentle cadence that complements his thickly accented voice so well. His character is equal parts sad clown, introverted misfit, and controlled violence. He’s capable of doling out death without a second thought, yet doesn’t understand many basic human interactions. But what makes his portrayal even more impressive is watching the change in his understated performance when he learns to love Matilda — no, his love for her never manifests itself the way she wants it to, but you can tell by the way he looks at the world around him differently — his life is changing profoundly, in ways he doesn’t understand. It terrifies him, to transfer what little emotion he has from a plant to a living, breathing person, and yet by the end he is willing to give anything and everything he has for this fragile new part of his already delicately-balanced existence.

Portman, on the other hand, illuminates the drab surroundings that are the film’s backdrop. Her Matilda is unlike any female character you are likely to see of any age. She manages to be a convoluted morass of emotion over the course of the film — belligerent, desperate for affection and attention, innocent and world weary at the same time. She shares many similarities with Léon — neither has ever been part of a normal life, and thus the emotions they feel are unlike the emotions that your average citizen feels. When thrown together, the room is filled to bursting with their conflicting energies — Léon’s quiet intensity, Matilda’s childlike mania. She serves as the perfect counter-balance to his subdued performance, yet without making it unbelievable. In fact, the quiet moments between them are some of the most stirring. When she discovers what Léon does for a living, there is no histrionic scene. Instead, it is a quiet acceptance on her part, followed by a brutally honest question and answer session. And when Léon explains to Matilda just what she means to him … well, amidst the fire and fury of that scene, it is a moment of joy, exhilaration and terrifying emotion.

Of course, those who have seen the movie are probably baffled about a certain omission. And that’s because I decided to save my favorite part for last: Gary Oldman. Good Lord knows I’ve seen Oldman play a number of unusual, over-the-top roles over his prolific and peculiar career. This is easily my favorite. Despite being the main villain in the film, he has little screen time — if I had to guess he’s probably on screen for no more than 45 of the film’s 133 minutes. But he takes those 45 minutes and skins them, guts them, and rolls around in them with a maniacal glee. He plays Detective Norman Stansfield with an unhinged delight that you simply have to see to fully appreciate. A crooked cop is one thing. A convulsive, pill-popping, classical music devotee with a penchant for deathly quiet menace and murderous temper tantrums is something else entirely. Oldman chews scenery with such a glorious fury that one almost expects him to leave a blood trail when his scenes are over. And yet, once again, it somehow works within the framework of the movie. At one point, after an afternoon spent stalking him, Matilda is finally confronted by him in a scene where he radiates such pent-up twisted passion that you’re sure the scene will end nightmarishly. When he bites down on one of his pills, sending him into a shuddering, eye-twitching state of near-orgasm, I guarantee you will either lean forward in fascination, or shift backwards in nervous anticipation. He asks her, “Do you like life, sweetheart?” When a trembling, crying Matilda stammers a fearful “yes,” he completely invades her space and, while still in the throes of his drug-induced fervor, softly tells her, “That’s good, because I take no pleasure in taking life if it’s from a person who doesn’t care about it.” It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, and perhaps perfectly captures both of them at their best.

Léon succeeds in doing all of the things I mentioned at the beginning of this. It takes you into its world completely, and makes you think more and more about the actions of its characters, the places they go, the things they say. It makes you believe that its world, no matter how wild or bleak or terrifying it may be, is fully realized and altogether genuine. While the performances range from manic to gentle, demented to demure, it is wholly absorbing. When I first saw it in 1994, I remember walking out of the theater and thinking to myself, “this is what it should always be like. This is what we should be looking for.” The violence may startle you, the love story may make you squirm, the grimness of it may sadden you, but you will enjoy every moment of it, and you will definitely remember it.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him wasting his time at Uncooked Meat.

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TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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