Luc Besson is a strange man. Anyone who has seen The Fifth Element can attest to the man’s off-kilter sensibilities, which fortunately include encouraging Gary Oldman to act completely insane.
The French director’s first English-language film was Leon: The Professional (1994), which stars Jean Reno as Leon, the reductio ad absurdum of a hit-man or “cleaner” (in the film’s parlance) who reluctantly takes responsibility for the life of an orphan (a very precocious Natalie Portman, in her film debut). We’re introduced to Leon on the job, single-handedly taking out a team of mob toughs one by one, flitting in and out of the shadows like some French ninja. Leon is illiterate, laconic, apparently very good at what he does and only what he does–a man simmered down to the basic elements of “professional assassin”. He has an Italian mob handler (Danny Aiello) who both commissions him and withholds the pay for “safe-keeping”: “Hey, it’s your money. I mean, I’m just holding it for you, like a bank. Except better than a bank, ’cause you know banks always get knocked off. No one knocks off old Tony.”
There are drugs, guns & murder and young Mathilda (Portman) ending up in the care of the mysterious and virtuosic hit-man. An obvious precursor to Chloe Moretz’s Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, Mathilda is less a cartoon than damaged goods taking up with a hit-man, jonesing to learn the trade and mete out some death of her own. Besson’s handling of this relationship is not necessarily finely observed and realized–the young girl’s need for an older man is clear, Leon’s need for her maybe less so–and it sometimes veers into the queasily sexual. Not that this film by any means contains or endorses pedophilia, but the much older Leon has a boyish affection for her, as though his childhood soul had been trapped by decades of professional violence and never allowed to mature. Whatever the intention here, I would want to tell the “quirky” Frenchman who made the film that having a twelve year old put black lingerie over her clothes and sing “Like A Virgin” to an older man–even for laughs–is in poor taste.
The conflict of the film centers around Gary Oldman’s charismatically evil DEA agent, himself a reductive symbol for the dangerous and twisted world in which the protagonists live. His need to tie-up the loose ends of his actions creates a pretext for much of the violence, especially so the climactic stuff at the film’s end. Leon ultimately works because of its fine character performances and because–despite the queasiness–the movie is about the people in it and not the violence, lending the violence dramatic weight missing from so many films. And contra the feckless abandon with which Kick-Ass was willing to embrace its pint-sized girly killer, even the mob boss in Leon seems to understand that a life of killing is not something one wants for a child, but rather security and a return to normalcy.