I have long thought that owning films on DVD or video is a waste of money – you watch them once and after that they are left to fester at the back of a cupboard. Occasionally I make an exception – some films simply cannot be fully appreciated on just one viewing. Every time I watch Leon is as gripping and enjoyable as the first. Sad, funny, violent, incredibly touching – few films manage to tick all the boxes and even fewer are about hitmen.
It obviously helps when your leading man has as much screen presence as Jean Reno. Thin and wiry with toilet brush hair and a face like a bag of spanners, he is hardly your typical gun-toting action hero, but he has an innocence and compassion that makes you fall for him instantly. Leon’s life is as simple as a small child’s: TV, lashings of milk and the odd gangland assassination. He cannot read, he doesn’t sleep, he hasn’t the trappings of family or wealth (the fees for his hits are habitually trousered by his `benefactor’: sleazy small-time Italian gangster Tony (Danny Aiello)) – In short, he lives like a robot. And then he meets Mathilda.
Normally I can’t stand Hollywood kids. They are all doey-eyed, bouffant-haired brats who can cry on cue and are always ready with a cutesy, smart-alec comment that will cause their adult co-stars to tinkle with laughter or tousle their hair playfully. Often they are kidnapped and huge ransoms demanded while their parents go demented with worry. I for one am usually rooting for the kidnappers.
Natalie Portman’s Mathilda is the antithesis of these namby-pamby Dawson’s Creek actors-in-waiting. For starters, she has something justifiable to gripe about, in that her entire family has just been slaughtered by Gary Oldman and his gang of crooked DEA officers. This is a bit of a blow, to say the least, but Mathilda takes it all in her stride and teams up with Leon in a bid for revenge. So begins one of the stranger relationships in silver screen history, but one of the most memorable.
On the face of it, a love story between a twelve year old girl and a hairy French hitman would raise a few eyebrows among more conservative movie-goers, but director Luc Besson handles it so beautifully, it seems like the most natural thing on earth. They are united in being totally alone in the world – indeed, the scene where Mathilda walks quietly down the corridor past the carnage in her apartment and knocks on Leon’s door, imploring him in a tearful whisper to let her in is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking. Leon is wary at first, but she soon wins him round and starts to gently bring him out of the shell.
Portman is truly astonishing – one can almost forgive her for being a part of the appalling Star Wars prequels on the strength of this one performance. The iconic image of this tiny, grubby little girl clutching Leon’s beloved plant and trotting to keep up with her lanky hero’s giant strides is one that will live long in the memory.
Aiello and Oldman (at his sadistic, malevolent best) provide predictably excellent support, there is a wonderfully suspenseful yet satisfying ending – heck, there’s even a decent Sting song playing over the credits – for this (if nothing else) it would be remiss of me to give Leon anything other than top marks.
10 out of 10 stars