It’s tempting to greet this 20th anniversary re-release of Léon with disbelief, simply because – sacre bleu – what business does Léon have being 20 years old? Watching it today, it still feels as fresh as spring rain. And that’s in spite of it feeling like one of the last great actioners of a bygone era.
Released in 1994, Léon came right on the cusp of several radical changes that shook up spectacle on the big screen. Just around the corner lay the computer-assisted revolutions of bullet time (The Matrix) and wire-fu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), followed by the shakycam docu-immediacy of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne outings.
These upgrades felt dazzlingly new and different, and largely remain the default modes of today’s adrenaline-pumpers. But they did shift the goalposts to an extent where sometimes it now seems like ‘live’ action has morphed into animation. (Either that, or they’ve fallen into the hands of camera operators who need to lay off the caffeine for a while.)
At worst, the grace of the classical action film – the well-honed harmony between camera, subject and heart-in-throat peril – has risked losing its mojo to modern tech: real stuntmen replaced by sprites, movement becoming motion blur, set-pieces that are more about wrangling visual FX than pointing actual cameras at actual stuff. And few people point cameras at stuff better than Luc Besson when he’s on his game.
Besson has the skill set of a great action director, mixing the compositional eye of the comic-book fan he’s been since youth with an understanding of space worthy of a great choreographer (or an action master like Spielberg, Cameron, Woo et al).
Léon’s two signature set-pieces (the opening mob hit and the climactic apartment siege) are actually fairly simple in terms of production – one is mostly in a corridor – but Besson’s flair for pace and cutting spins them into textbook examples of how to do slick ’n’ suspenseful. Proving you don’t need screen-filling fireballs to turn up the heat, Léon’s final act yanks you to the edge of your seat over whether a bunch of guys can go through a door.
But Léon’s set-in-stone status as action classic is one thing. For all its sunglassesand- guns cool (which the marketing traded heavily on), not to mention the scuzz of its pre-Giuliani New York setting, Besson’s movie is really a fairytale. Sure, it’s a fairytale in which Gary Oldman shoots a prostrate man in the back about six times, but at its (soft) heart it’s about a 12-year-old orphan Mathilda (Natalie Portman) befriending grumpy loner Léon (Jean Reno) and teaching him platonic love.
It’s a variation of sorts on The Princess And The Frog – with performances for the ages. In her first key role, the pre-teen Portman essays a resilience, intelligence and charisma that still astonishes today.
Yet Reno arguably has the harder job. Having to convey childlike innocence while also convincing as New York’s hardest hitman would be a challenge even for Day-Lewis, but the French icon nails it. There’s a shot of him watching a musical in a revival cinema that practically defines uncomplicated joy. And this is a guy who killed about a dozen men just a half hour earlier in the film.
Also, with Reno underplaying and keeping it simple, we have an opening for some off-the-leash exuberance elsewhere. Enter Gary Oldman at the peak of his ’90s baddie phase (True Romance, Lost In Space, Air Force One, Besson’s The Fifth Element et al). He presumably auditioned for his corrupt DEA agent part by tying Portman to a railway line.
His Norman Stansfield is pure, consummate villainy, absolutely aware of and relishing just how evil he is. Oldman has a ball, finding weird readings for every second line, and it’s a mark of his talent that his aiming-for-the-back-row performance never tips over from lurid to ludicrous.
Having one career highlight performance in a film is a treat. Having three is just spoiling us, and the film is so solidly sold by the actors – even Oldman’s narc cronies are memorable – that it mostly manages to sidestep the potential queasiness in the Léon/Mathilda relationship.
Although it has to be said, Besson does skate fairly lightly over the moral issues involved in teaching a child how to use handguns. We get more of Mathilda’s ‘training’ in the longer Director’s Cut (helpfully included here alongside the theatrical edit); the trade-off is that this version deepens the relationship between the central duo, bolstering its case not only as an action milestone but as a fine character piece, too.
Shame then, that this Blu-ray Steelbook edition’s extras only run to two decent (and fresh) interviews, with Reno and composer Eric Serra. No Besson (a planned audio interview didn’t make the cut, alas), no Portman, no Oldman... maybe they’re all in denial that such a vital film has turned 20, too...
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