Luc Besson is one of those great directors who managed to stay fresh and relevant throughout the years. Although The Fifth Element is a movie that promoted him into a super-director, his previous effort Leon: The Professional is a much more palatable pleasure. And if we went back even further, to his 1990 action flick Nikita, we can see the beginnings of the movie we are reviewing now. However, I found Nikita to be a far more inferior movie than Leon, mostly because of that mainstream vibe.
Leon features phenomenal camera-work and cinematography, with some scenes being so iconic I can recall them even now, years and years after I have seen the movie. Like the scene where Oldman is swallowing his pills and tilting his head backward. Check out True Romance, another nineties classic for more crazy Gary. The story is relatively simple but the characters are most certainly not and if you add to this the pitch-perfect pacing, you get one hell of a movie. Remastered and available in 4K resolution, movies still looks stylish as fuck. Actually, I think they might have overdone it, I kinda wished that that nineties gritty grain is still there…
It plays out like some myth, with an older man protecting a young girl who finds herself in deep trouble. The clash between the innocence of Mathilda and a complete lack of innocence with Leon pushes the story forward and this is just one of the elements that you can analyze. The entire movie has this nihilistic vibe that resonated so well with me. However, there’s a more sinister backstory to this movie that I wasn’t aware for the longest time.
You should know that Luc Besson met his first wife Maïwenn Le Besco when she was only 12 years old. They married when she was only 15 and had they first child when she was 16. Their sick love affair and marriage were the basis for the story of this movie. The original cut of Leon had a couple of really nasty scenes where Mathilda courts him and asks him to be her lover. You should also know that several women sued Luc for rape although their lawsuit was dismissed. In 1996, Luc left Maïwenn for Milla Jovovich.
However, the main concept used in this movie is not new and it can be the first seen in the original adaptation of A. J. Quinnell novel Man on Fire released in 1987 and starring Scott Glenn. Tony Scott’s 2004 edition with Denzel Washington playing burnt-out CIA agent John Creasy is also pretty good. If you’re looking for movies with a similar theme check out Safe  and The Man from Nowhere . And finally I must mention Taxi Driver with De Niro and young Jodie Foster. The dynamic might not be the same but still there’s something there.
You don’t want to meet a guy like Léon Montana. Leon is a professional hitman, living in New York and working for the Italian mafia. He’s very good at his job but has little knowledge or interest in other things. One day he meets Mathilda, a young girl living with her crazy family in the same building, but avoids any unnecessary contact. However, when DEA agents raid Mathilda’s home, he will have to make a decision that will have long-term consequences.
I mentioned earlier elements that you can analyze but I want to make something clear, this is not one of those boring movies where you need that shit just to stay alive. This is just bonus content. This was a debut for young Natalie Portman and it’s no wonder that she’s now an established Hollywood actress, she was phenomenal here. Reno and especially Oldman were also great, Reno being an old associate of Besson’s was an obvious choice, but the casting of Oldman was fucking prophetic.
The relationship between Mathilda and Leon was a bit too much for my taste, I mean unrealistic and too dreamy. I wanted that shit to be gritty as fuck, but that’s now that I’m older. When I was younger, one thing and one thing alone fascinated me: the pulling of the curtain. The shit that this little girl went through hit me like an edible and I was scared shitless that I might end up in the same situation, without any reason for that, of course. Up until then I still believed that there are rules in this world, oh how I was wrong…
Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Cast: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello, Peter Appel, Willi One Blood, Elizabeth Regen
Fun Facts: Natalie Portman was originally turned down by Todd M. Thaler (the casting director) because she was too young. However, she returned to the auditions and performed the scene where Mathilda laments the loss of her brother. Impressed with the depth of emotion, Luc Besson gave her the role on the spot.