It is revolting to think that 25 years have passed since Luc Besson’s Leon first blasted it’s way onto our screens and crept into our hearts. A professional “cleaner”, Leon, lives a quiet unassuming life until he takes in Mathilda, a young girl who’s family has been murdered by corrupt DEA agent Norman Stanfield. Leon teaches Mathilda the ways of being an assassin forming a relationship that’s both teacher/mentor, familial and potentially something more.
Leon introduced the wider world to the majesty of Jean Reno. Already a star for his turns in time-traveling comedy Les Visiteurs, plus Besson’s The Big Blue and Nikita, Leon made him a suave cultural icon. The visual embodiment of cool composure in long black coat and shades, Reno plays Leon with both chilling coldness and childlike wonderment. We’re introduced to the character wiping out a dozen criminals, the next we see him carefully tending his beloved plant then sat enraptured watching Singing in the Rain.
Equally impressive is a debuting Natalie Portman. Importantly for a child-actor who takes up a great deal of screentime; she never feels overwhelmed by the material and crucially never becomes annoying. Mathilda is vulnerable but filled with bravado. Her impatience to grow older faster leading her to want to commit murder and form a sexual relationship with her mentor.
Potentially problematic, especially in today’s climate, the film skirts very close to the edge in terms of suggestion about the relationship. Reno has gone on to say that there is no question in his mind that nothing of that nature develops between the two. Ultimately though they are two lonely, disparate souls who manage to find happiness in each other’s company. The pair became one of the early 90s great on-screen couples along Arquette/Slater in True Romance and Harrelson/Lewis in Natural Born Killers.
Also here to chew the scenery is a wildly OTT Gary Oldman (the best kind of Gary Oldman), as the drugged-up, murderous Stansfield. Dancing dangerously close to looking like he’s turned up to the wrong film, his raging performance beautifully counterbalances the calmness of Reno’s. Oldman is clearly having fun. Screeching some lines whilst hizzing others. The main surprise going back to it now is the realisation that he’s not in it as much as you remember.
The new 4K version of the film looks stunning. Much like the poster image of Leon looking up towards the skyscrapers, everything in the film appears larger than life. Within hotel rooms and Leon’s apartment, Besson keeps things intimate with a stage-like framing. As soon as Leon and Mathilda begin to walk the streets of New York they are engulfed by monolithic buildings. The camera moving in a way that makes the architecture feel like they are moving around them. The photography is up there with The Big Blue in terms of its profound beauty. If there’s one prime reason to buy this version it is simply to sit in awe of the visuals.
For die-hards who have watched the film countless times, the Director’s Cut adds back in previous cut scenes. The infamous ‘Russian Roulette’ scene is back in as well as an extended sequence of Leon training Mathilda how to kill “out in the field”. Besson has always been a writer/director who enjoys merging the spectacle with intimate drama. The gaudy, showiness of Subway giving way to the dryness of The Lady but with Leon, he found the perfect combination.
Breathtakingly cool and heartbreaking in equal measure. It’s a pleasure to be reminded of how funny, violent, awe-inspiring and emotional Leon is after all this time.
Dir: Luc Besson
Scr: Luc Besson
Cast: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello
Prd: Luc Besson, Patrice Ledoux
Music: Eric Serra
DoP: Thierry Arbogast
Runtime: Directors Cut – 132 mins, Theatrical – 110 mins
Leon: Director’s Cut is available on 4K UHD, BLU-RAY, DVD and EST from 11th November 2019.