- Jean Reno as Leon
- Natalie Portman as Mathilda
- Gary Oldman as Norman Stansfield
- Danny Aiello as Tony
A stylish but most unusual crime thriller, Leon burns into the memory with explosive set pieces and an attention to the characters that is sometimes rare in the genre. Featuring some off the wall visual tricks and violence a plenty, it’s a thriller that does things a little differently but with panache.
Leon is a solitary hit man living in Little Italy who is emotionally shut off and very efficient at his job of killing others. When he isn’t dispatching of people for mafioso and good friend Tony, he is quite different from the average hit man. This is evidenced in his love of old movies, consumption of milk and dedicated to tending to his plant. In essence, Leon is only in the job to make ends meet. His distance from everyone else is what makes him so good at the job as he never really forms emotional attachments to anyone. That is until he encounters Mathilda; a twelve-year-old girl who comes from a dysfunctional and abusive family and lives down the hall from him. Mathilda’s father, who regularly gives her a black eye, has been stashing cocaine in his apartment for corrupt DEA agents, headed by the crazed and depraved Norman Stansfield. When Stansfield finds out that her father has been cutting the cocaine to keep for himself, Stansfield sends his men around and they kill Mathilda’s father, mother, step-sister and four-year-old brother. Mathilda managed to avoid the carnage as she was out shopping. Seeing what has happened, the scared Mathilda knocks on Leon’s door begging for a safe haven. He has doubts at first, but something within him lets the terrified young girl in. Mathilda is a troubled girl who has had to grow up fast in an unjust world of violence, yet underneath she is still a frightened and innocent little girl. Leon is skeptical about sheltering Mathilda as he is shut off emotionally and doesn’t quite know how to express his feelings. When Mathilda discovers Leon’s job, she asks him to train her in the art of killing, secretly hoping to gain retribution for the killing of her younger brother, who was the only person in her family that she felt close to. Although he is extremely reluctant about this because he knows the dangers, at her behest he trains her and she becomes a quick learner of the art. Slowly, Leon and Mathilda form an unlikely bond with each other as he grows into the role of her protector and opens up emotionally while she emerges as his protégée. Yet Stansfield has realized that he didn’t kill the whole family and sets out to find Mathilda, who herself is learning how to kill and plans to get revenge on him for the slaying of her brother. Leon finds that his job is becoming in danger like never before as Stansfield closes in and Mathilda wants vengeance.
Luc Besson, through striking visual style and interesting writing, creates a thriller that takes many different steps that one would thing. He craftily mixes personal drama and sharp bits of humour into Leon, with the main focus of the film being the relationship between the principal characters and not just the action and violence. This really struck me as something very unique in this kind of film as some thrillers and crimes movies can overlook their characters for flashy tricks. And while Leon does have rapid editing and a bright cinematography to highlight the dingy setting of the flick, complete with bloody violence to cap that off, it never loses us for a second and the scenes between Leon and Mathilda take on a more personal level. Some may find the relationship between Leon and Mathilda as uncomfortable due to overtones of Mathilda’s attraction towards Leon, but I saw it as she does love him, but as she is only a child it is an a way that is out of care and respect as she has never had a father figure like him before. An echoing score of pulsing beats gives electric immediacy to Leon, as well as taking the time to slow down and bring a poignant sense of emotion as Leon opens up as a human being in the presence of young Mathilda.
In the title role of the lonely hit man, Jean Reno is very well cast. His melancholy face is used to great effect as we watch how closed off he has been to anyone and how when he does let someone in, things start to get personal and very dangerous. Reno is the only actor I can think of playing the part, no other actor could have done the part of the hit man with a buried heart so well. Yet the biggest impression made in Leon is Natalie Portman in what was her debut role. Considering she was only twelve-years-old at the time of filming and it was her first movie, Natalie Portman showed how even at her young age she could be remarkably assured as she plays Mathilda with confidence and seeming ease. Some of the things the script calls for are daring for such a young actress to play as the character has had to toughen herself against an abusive home and the horrors of the world, but with an emotional core and sassy demeanor tempered with a troubled nature, Natalie Portman delivers a truly knockout performance. This is the kind of performance that stands as one of the best debuts in celluloid history for its striking maturity and memorability. As the gloriously corrupt and completely whacked out Stansfield, Gary Oldman is frightening and over the top in the extreme, but it fits the unpredictable character so well and makes him a dark villain. Danny Aiello succeeds in making his character of mafioso Tony who has loyalty to Leon, very good and a a good supporting character.
An audacious movie combining style, substance and occasional wit, Leon sets itself apart from many crime thrillers with its detail to characters and fresh approaches to things that make it quite unexpected.