French director and writer Luc Besson has had a curious career thus far. In recent years he’s brought us films like The Transporter, Taken and Lucy, which are all shit. But prior to that, he was responsible for cult classics such as The Fifth Element and La Femme Nikita, establishing a unique visual style that basically looks like someone’s turned the colour saturation right up in an attempt to blind all the characters. Being a fan of that particular look (and Natalie Portman), I decided to watch Leon: The professional, arguably Besson’s best work. I’m only 22 years late.
Subsequently, Leon has wriggled its way into my all-time favourites, nestling between Fargo and Spirited Away to form a delightful, interracial spit-roast. Like many of Besson’s films, it features a female protagonist who wants to go on a killing spree because men involved in shady drug business generally tend to be bastards. In this particular instance, it’s a streetwise, twelve-year-old girl called Mathilda (Portman) who’s just had her family massacred by a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman). She happens to live down the corridor from Leon (Jean Reno), a highly skilled hitman more acquainted with quick assassinations than you are with your right hand. He also shares half of his IQ with the houseplant he incessantly cares for, so it’s in his best interest to train Mathilda while she teaches him how to read, write and, well, live.
What follows is a touching action/fantasy/romance that annoyingly reminded me I must be human after all. As their relationship develops and they begin to show each other two very different sides of life, it becomes clear that these are not your average, throw on a pile with the cast of Die Hard, characters. You’d buy them as father and adopted daughter if it weren’t for Mathilda’s disconcerting romantic feelings towards Leon. (Yeah, that’s a troubling one.) Their platonic chemistry is iconic, especially when they start blowing people to pieces.
But despite it being packed with action scenes that make James Bond’s look like Olympic wrestling, the best moments actually come from the training. Where most kids would mature by going to school or getting a paper round, Mathilda develops by learning how to pick people off in Central Park with a sniper rifle. Oddly enough, Portman has never been more convincing. Not even when she was getting munched by Mila Kunis in that film about swans. And I’m wondering what happened to Jean Reno’s career after this; it’s undoubtedly his best performance. Maybe he’s a bit too French for most casting directors. Well he was born in Morocco, actually! Racists.
Anyway, what’s particularly special about Leon is Besson’s ability to transform New York into Paris. In fact, the hallway and staircase scenes were shot in the famous Chelsea Hotel, while the inside of Leon’s apartment was filmed on a set in France. That means he was jumping across the Atlantic every time he went in and out of his door. But it’s mainly down to the visually rich cinematography. Every shot looks like a painting, made even more evocative whenever the artist covers his characters in red.