Retrospective: Léon: The Professional (1994)

Léon was Natalie Portman’s first movie and it’s absolutely bonkers. It has one of the strangest plots in a big Hollywood movie from Luc Besson, an admittedly odd French director (who I frequently confuse for Jen-Luc Goddard). At its most basic, the plot is about a young, forgotten girl being buddies with a hit man and her search for revenge on those people who killed her family but it’s much stranger than that for the following reasons.

1) The plot is a confused mess with jarring changes in tones which give the plot the impression that it’s walked away from a car accident with wild shifts in scenes such as having a brutal murder of a family of feckless idiots played straight and then for laughs within seconds of each other.

When I started watching this movie I thought ‘oh cool it’s the progenitor of the Kick-Ass, a brilliant movie with a swearing twelve year old learning how to be a hit man to avenge her younger brother but it isn’t that at all because there’s a whole heap of subplots with all sort of other strangeness.

2) There are some magnificent performances and some shockers. While Norman Stansfield has far too little screen time and Gary Oldman is wonderful as a corrupt DEA, the worst of the bunch seem to have the most time on screen, in particular Jean Reno as Léon who is frankly appalling, mainly due to being a crap English act (he made me wish for Arnold Schwarzenegger with his flat delivery and monotone voice). Natalie Portman’s character is a huge issue also. As a twelve year old girl she has a lot of sexually explicit dialogue (basically explaining how she wants to bed Leon someone who looks in his 40-50s) which feels like incredibly uncomfortable viewing as you have this Lolita like figure flirting throughout.

This movie has a serious characterisation problem because there isn’t really any arc to the movie, with the exception of perhaps Mathilda who has a small change in character. There is a good movie in here somewhere and it’s a huge shame that it couldn’t be shown with a bit of recasting and a bit of work with the script by someone who knows how to do these movies. You could have had something like Kick Ass 8 years before it came out (obviously without the superhero stuff) but dealing with the wonderful world of hired killers.

3) Like the acting there are some nice scenes in this movie but it’s spolied like everything else with issues of context, tone and some very strange choices such as a focus on the least interesting characters at the expense of the most interesting. The focus should be on the DEA agent Norman rather than Léon and Mathilda which is quite frankly boring and needlessly lengthens the movie. There are some nice bits such as a door to door hired killing and any scene with Gary who plays such a wonderfully insane character – a drug taking and dealing DEA agent with a very strange delivery. What’s not to like?

When writing retrospectives, what’s important is to remember not only the good, but the bad and the forgotten and Léon is the best kind of bad movie to look back upon because it was critically lauded when it first came out but it is frankly a mess. There are still so many positive aspects of the film and with a few changes it could have been a magnificent movie with depth, pathos and an interesting plot with a cast of misfits. It’s flawed, deeply flawed, but an interesting movie nevertheless where the changes that could have been made are frustratingly apparent.

Review by Harry Riedl


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