A dour and illiterate Italian hit man finds redemption in the company of a headstrong, orphaned girl in Luc Besson’s Leon. Shooting entirely in English for the first time since his runaway local hit The Big Blue, Besson delivers a naive fairy tale splattered with blood.
Tale dawdles to the half-hour mark when Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a bright but abused 12-year-old truant, returns from the grocery store to find that corrupt cop Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his trigger-happy crew have used her entire family for target practice. Mathilda is reluctantly taken in by her towering and taciturn neighbor, Leon (Jean Reno), a self-described ‘cleaner’ (Bessonian slang for ‘hit man’). The ambitious, only mildly bereaved waif thinks that’s ‘cool’ and begs 40-ish Leon to teach her his trade. The mismatched couple bonds, and the formerly invincible hit man becomes vulnerable.
Dialogue is adequate but lacks a single quotable or memorable line. Fortunately, the visuals – shot on location in Little Italy and Spanish Harlem, with eight weeks of studio interiors in France – put the story across. Widescreen lensing favors tight close-ups, and multiple shoot-’em-ups are edited with panache.
Newcomer Portman shows an appealing spontaneity although she never registers as a real child. Danny Aiello is good, if familiar, as a restaurateur. Oldman’s edgy perf as a drug- and power-crazed turncoat, while not one of his best, is by far the most interesting characterization on display.
[A 132-min. Version Integrale, which represented the director’s original cut prior to test screenings in the US, was released in France in June 1996 and later on laserdisc. This version expands on Mathilda’s apprenticeship, and her relationship with Leon.]