Following the success of La Femma Nikita in 1990, “renegade” (as labelled by HBO) French director Luc Besson (Lucy) finally had the opportunity to bring Fifth Element, a film he’d been dreaming up on-and-off since he was a teenager, to the big screen. Hollywood studios were paying attention to the hot young talent, offering to back him up with fat wads of greasy green cash. Even genuine A-lister Bruce Willis (Die Hard) was saying he wanted to star. The only snag was Willis was knee-deep in one of the most productive periods of his career; he was booked up until 95′. So Besson decided to wait and in the meantime made a small scale “passion project” he’d thought up whilst shooting Nikita. Léon was born.
New York. 1994. Height of summer. Some little Italian place where good and bad people go to get their problems cleaned up. Tony (Danny Aiello – Do The Right Thing) sits chatting to one such “cleaner”. This is Léon (Jean Reno – Ronin). Italian made, tall, wearing round shades, a hat and a big-ass overcoat. Weird considering it’s so fucking hot out. He keeps cool by glugging a glass of milk. See Léon is all about business and staying in shape. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t curse, doesn’t spend his cleaning money on hookers or expensive DVD collections (or VHS at the time). Instead he just waits for the next job, spending the days doing sit-ups, cleaning his favorite plant, and ironing his trousers.
So naturally he’s not going to be busy next Tuesday for a little job. Mauricio, the contractor, is having some problems with a fat bastard who is trying to move in on his turf. Now Mauricio is a reasonable guy. All he wants is a conversation. The Fat Bastard comes to town once a week to party and do business. Léon will be waiting.
This is a great “how badass is this guy” opening. Fat Bastard is surrounded by strapped-up bodyguards in a penthouse. They’ve even got CCTV surveilance. But that doesn’t deter our bespectacled killer. Shit, he doesn’t even bother to do it on the sly neither. Instead he walks straight up to the point guy, Tonto (you guessed it, some native American dude wearing a cowboy hat), and sticks a gun in his face. Tonto radios upstairs. “There’s a guy down here who wants to talk to you”.
“What’s he look like?”
Boom, Tonto goes down. Well not really a boom. More that cool “PEW” sound that silenced weapons do. It’s difficult to phonetically write down how it sounds, but you know how it goes. You can probably do your own impression, you slick bastard you.
This spooks out the dudes upstairs, and they get ready with some automatics as the elevator starts moving up. They open fire as the doors open, but Léon has played the old “I’m not in the elevator” trick. Instead he’s hiding elsewhere, killing off other stray dudes. He garrotes one guy, resulting in an awesome neck breaking noise. This is so crucial to creating the effect, so kudos to the sound team.
Soon it’s just Fat Bastard and Léon who is rolling old school with a knife. He appears out of the shadows like Batman and knife-to-throat tells Fatman to dial a number. Mauricio is on the other line who gives him a firm bollocking but tells Léon to let him go. He disappears into the shadows from whence he came just before the cops arrive.
Just another day at the office. For $5k a head, you’d think Léon would live in some awesome apartment, or at least have some sick ass classic car and or an
eclectic vinyl collection or something. Instead he takes the subway and lives in a cheap apartment next to some shitty welfare family. As he heads home he encounters their middle child, young Mathilda (Natalie Portman – Thor), a 12 year old school drop out who is trying her best to disguise a growing smoking habit (the rebel). She asks Léon to promise to not tell her Dad he caught her smoking. He agrees.
As he enters his apartment some really bad dudes leave Matilda’s. One such bastard has his back to us. Headphones in. This is pre-Ipod days too. The big guy in black, Malky, is doing all the talking to Mathilda’s dad (Michael Badalucco), some fat sweaty-vest wearing kinda guy. It seems that in June the dope they left in his house was 100% pure. Now it’s July and it’s only 90%. So what about the missing 10%? Malky warns he’s gonna have to disturb his friend here during his music. And he hates being disturbed during his music.
Fat Dad doesn’t have any answers.
Malky does the disturbing, and Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman – Hannibal) turns to meet us. He’s an unshaven unhinged kind of guy. Wearing a creased beige suit and unbuttoned white shirt, it’s hard to tell where the summer heat ends and the crazy psychopath begins. “Oh”, he reacts when he’s told Fat Dad doesn’t have the missing dope. Fortunately, he has a talent for sniffing out a lie. It’s like a sixth sense. After giving the man a good smell (literally – this scene was improvised, and the look on actor Badalucco’s face entirely genuine in it’s unease/disgust), he admits that he believes him. He doesn’t know who cut the dope. But he better find out by tomorrow. Noon.
He keeps his promise. The next day six heavies arrive with him, but he doesn’t need them. All he needs are his little pills. He pops one and his entire body contorts in a painful ecstasy.
“I like these little moments before the storm…it reminds me of Beethoven”.
Stansfield kicks down the door and enters to the tune of old Ludwig playing in his head. Shotgun in hand he guns down Mathilda’s Mum in the bath, her annoying sister in the kitchen, and finally zones in on her Dad. He doesn’t like Beethoven, obviously. But then even old Stansfield gets bored after the opening. Maybe Fat Dad should try Mozart instead?
The hired goons toss the apartment looking for the missing dope. But Fat Dad manages to get to a stashed shotty of his own, and everyone freaks. One dude takes a shell straight to the chest, Mathilda’s little brother is taken out by a stray bullet*, and Stansfield catches one in the arm. Painlessly, he’s more pissed he’s ruined his suit, and shoots Fat Dad in the back as he’s running. “Look at what you did!” he screams as he pumps five more into the bloody lump of fat flesh.
*It’s always daring to see a kid get murdered in a film, and while you never see it here, it’s still heavy fucking business. Later in the movie, Mathilda realizes she’s standing in the chalk outline of his body. She steps out gingerly, respectfully. Still, even as a non-father (well I hope to Christ I’m a non-father), I can respect the power of this stuff, even if you don’t actually see a body or a kill.
Mathilda, who was out running an errand for Léon, turns up. But she’s smart enough to walk passed the open front door blocked by the corpse of her dad face down marinating in a pool of his own blood (and probably piss). She instead heads to Léon’s. He’s of course watching through his keyhole and as Mathilda starts hammering on his door, silently crying, he wonders if he’s a good idea to get involved in this kind of shit. But he has a moment of weakness and lets her in.
I wonder if this kind of thing would happen these days. I mean, I’d imagine if this was set today, Léon would be chilling out with his Dre Beats on, totally oblivious to the sound of her banging on his door. Or he could be playing Overwatch or some shit. Either way, he wouldn’t be getting involved.
Any way, one of Stansfield’s men finds the dope and the cops arrive. Stansfield tells his rasta mate, Willie One Blood, to stay. “What do you want me to tell them?”
“Tell them we were doing our job”.
We realize to our horror that Stansfield and his crew are cops. DEA to be exact. But corrupt. So corrupted, like on-the-deathbed blackened cancer to-the-bone corrupt. I think what makes Stansfield so effective and scary is because his manic unpredictability and blatant evil streak run contrary to how we’d ever expect any agent of the law to operate. Yeah, we’ve seen plenty of bent cops on the take before. But they’re always concerned with keeping themselves secret and everything quiet. Stansfield causes a hurricane of destruction and death wherever he goes, with no consequences or thought for consequences. It’s as if he does not fear being caught, which makes him ultimately terrifying. I’ll be looking at this in greater detail in another article.
Matilda is now Léon’s problem. She’s understandably upset. Not about her dad or mother-in-law or her half sister. But she’s crying about her brother. He was four. He never cried but just wanted to cuddle instead. Léon tries to treat her like a child like with glove puppets but she’s too sophisticated for that. She has no one to go to. No other family. She quickly realizes that Léon isn’t normal either when she finds a big box full of guns. “What do you do for a living”.
“You mean you’re a hit-man?”
He agrees she can stay with him for the night. And as she sleeps he takes a gun to her head. But he can’t pull the trigger, despite how much sense it makes. She is gonna fuck up his whole life, he reckons, but she’s also just a girl. The next morning she’s set on what she wants to do. She wants him to train her to be a cleaner. He tells her the rules; no women no kids, but doesn’t need a partner. Bonnie and Clyde didn’t work alone, Thelma and Louise didn’t work alone, she argues while failing to mention both pairs die horrifically.
She claims he took responsibility by saving her life, and he finally relents and begins to train her. He starts with the sniper rifle. The better you get, the closer you can get to the client, he explains. The knife is the last thing you learn. She proves useful as she can blag her way into places he can’t. She can fill out forms that he can’t read etc. She says she’s 18, and he believes her. Do you want to see my licence. No, she just look younger, he admits.
As the pair work together, the bond deepens. She believes she is falling in love with him, much to his horror. He sees himself (or wants to see himself) more a father or big brother to her, telling her to stop smoking, talking to random guys on the street, stop cursing, and to talk nice etc. But she also makes him question his life and his choices. As he explains why he loves his plant – Quiet, simple, no questions. No roots. She argues that if he really loves it he should plant in the middle of the park so that it could have roots.
There are two primary cuts to this film. The cinema release really downplays the blossoming relationship between Léon and Mathilda. It plays much more as an action/thriller without the emotional overtones. The full uncut version adds about 25 minutes of additional scenes including many where she pushes the envelope in regards to her feelings. In the original script, they were supposed to be lovers, but Besson changed this early on. Additionally, some other creepy shit was supposed to happen like Léon walking in on her in the shower. This too was never filmed. Test audiences found many of these scenes awkward and slightly weird, laughing uncomfortably when she admits to wanting to sleep with him. The execs at the studios had Besson cut them for the theatrical release.
It’s hard to admit that there isn’t an uneasiness to some of the scenes. But I’d argue that the hard edge of these moments are dulled, primarily by Jean Reno’s characterization of Léon. He admitted to playing him almost as socially awkward, almost as a simpleton. Matilda dominates their interactions. It’s only with the weaponry, as a cleaner, is he the dominant one. Portman’s Mathilda is wild and emotional like the sea, whereas he is precise and cold. Standfield is a combination of both; unpredictable, but professionally dangerous. But Reno really imparts a sense of sadness in Léon. He never says it, but his solitary life as precise as it is is clearly missing something. The music really helps. Ultimately, I never saw this film as provocative as Lolita or anything, but your mileage may vary.
Other added scenes deal with Léon taking Mahilda on hits. Her first is on some drugs lab, run by legendary screen goon Robert LaSardo (Death Race, Hard to Kill). She burns down the lab after putting a paint bullet in his belly (Léon finishes the job). Besson never wanted to show Mathilda as a killer, but these sequences are actually really quiet fun. She puts on sunglasses and a hat of her own, and when they finally come up against some dude with skills and a machine gun (played by Besson himself), Léon’s solution properly foreshadows a moment in his and Stansfield’s showdown.
Despite all this, she still wants mad revenge on her brother’s killers. Returning to her parents apartment one day, she uncovers the money her dad had made after cutting the dope. Moving to leave, Stansfield and some internal affairs guys enter the scene. She hides and listens as he gets agitated by their questions. They don’t buy his answers, but damnit he lost a good man here and hasn’t got time for this Mickey Mouse bullshit.
Mathilda’s follows him to his office, then heads back to offer Léon a contract. $25k for Stansfield and his men. He refuses (too heavy). Revenge, he explains, is not good. Nothing is the same when you kill someone. You have to sleep with one eye open the rest of your life. She doesn’t give a fuck about sleep though. She just wants terrible, terrible revenge. Life or death. So when he goes on his next mission (we later learn to kill Malky for Mathilda), she takes it upon herself to tool up, and do the job herself. She uses that trusted disguise – the pizza delivery man (or girl in this instance).
Stansfield, ever good at sniffing out bullshit, catches her. He leaves her with his goons as he goes out to look over Malky’s body (“He was a pro. He was fast. Fucking Came out of nowhere. Boom shoots him dead in two seconds”). By this time Léon has returned home, found Mathilda’s note, and rushes to the DEA office to claim her back. He storms in the front door, punches out the guard, puts a bullet in each of Stansfield’s goons, and gets his girl. But now Stansfield is wise to what is going on. He’s familiar with this flavour of killing. It tastes very Italian to him, and he’d sure like to meet the chef…
I undoubtedly saw this after Fifth Element, which was huge upon release. And while this was a stop-gap job for Besson, inspired partially by Reno’s character Victor in Nikita, I think this is miles ahead in terms of quality. While I’ll get into Fifth Element (which also stars Oldman as the baddie) another day, I will say that this is much more of a satisfying, resonant, more personal sort of film. Yeah, Fifth Element puts the fate of the entire planet on the line, but I found myself getting sucked into Léon’s life much deeper.
The dire opposition between Léon and Mathilda are what make it so compelling. His ice, her fire, that sort of thing. I love how Besson plays with social and ethical standards in this movie too, where Léon, a professional hitman, subscribes to a set of beliefs that he teaches to Mathilda. Alongside the insistence that she not swear, trains hard, says nice things etc, he’s also schools her in high end murdering. The same with Stansfield. We’re supposed to hold him to the highest standard but he does the worst shit. Yet in a few scenes he questions why kids aren’t in school. He’s clearly a complicated kinda guy.
Good movie characters undergo changes. They all have a problem to overcome, and the heroes have to rise to this occasion (unless they’re Steven Seagal) to suceed. Léon changes. The introduction of a major issue in his life (Mathilda) does interrupt the flow of his day-to-day. He’s got a fucking kid to look after now. No time for all that brooding about his dead girlfriend anymore. But she gives him something he never expects. As he describes at the end, before they part for the final time “You’ve given me a taste for life. I want to be happy, sleep in the bed, have roots and never be alone again”.
We’ve been with him on this journey, and we feel that final scream of emotion he lets loose during the final siege. We want him to succeed, we need him to. There is no such depth in Fifth Element, shit in most movies.
Speaking of that siege; brilliantly executed. I don’t want to spoil the end to this film if you’re not seen it (go fucking rectify that now), but when Stansfield finds out where they live and sends everyone (“EVERYONE!!!!!”), Léon has to engage and outwit an entire police SWAT team. It’s gloriously violent, tense and cool. All the violence is well choreographed actually, from the initial badass hit, to the montage sequence when Léon takes Mathilda out on jobs.
While Besson had cut his teeth on action scenes in Nikita, this would appear to be cinematographer Thierry Arbogast first time. He’d later team up with Besson again for the muddled Lucy. Regardless, the action is clear, precise, and dare I say artistically shot. And what I mean by that is that it’s not all washed out and grey with stupid angles. Instead the entire film has a nice warm glow to it. Everything is well framed and easy to understand – a million miles from the direct-to-video dross we see these days.
Besson shot the film relatively quickly, and while he classifies it as a New York movie, filmed the interiors exclusively in Paris. It understandably has a unique style to it due to this. Coupled with the distinct music of long-time collaborator Éric Serra – lots of horns and accordions coupled with synthesizers – it feels like a multinational movie. A merger, if you will, of hard American action cinema and European artsy-fartsy dramatics.
The acting is of the highest level. As Victor in Nikita, Reno played the character as dark and violent, unafraid to kill anyone (women and children). Here his Léon is repressed but kind. He has a code, and while a badass killer, a little bit naive. As a Brit, I always figured Reno’s accent could very well be authentically Italian. I’m a dumbass though who thinks Gibson did a good Scottish accent in Braveheart, so there’s probably Italians out there who cringe when he speaks, I don’t know.
We all know the wonders and Oscar glory that Natalie Portman went on to achieve, but she is spectacular here. Remarkably this was her first film. What impresses me most is her ability to merge her physical childishness with a sort of world weary emotional gravitas. She is a victim to her emotions, but she readily acknowledges and confronts those emotions whereas Léon represses his.
Equally, Oldman’s turn as a corrupt cop runs anathema to modern day portrayals. He’s wild, unkempt, sweaty, almost out of control. It’s never explained how he keeps such a grip without him being discovered, and that makes him scary. He is the exact opposite to Reno’s buttoned-down central character, and is thus allowed to totally let loose. This is a great and iconic screen villain, masterfully created by the now Oscar-winning Oldman. He admits to working well with Besson, and brought something different to each scene with a lot of improvisation. That “EVERYONE” line that cracks people up? Improvised to make Besson laugh. It wouldn’t have worked if he’d have just said it like a regular Joe.
Léon is one of my all time favorite movies and a bonafied action classic. Whether you go for the cut or uncut versions, it doesn’t matter, as they both succeed in telling a fantastic story. As Besson describes in the making of documentary, he needed to balance out all the action with some form of emotion. While the borderline risky elements of the uncut version may turn some people off, it’s undeniable that this movie possess a soul and a message. I love watching Seagal snap wrists like any other dude, but his movies seldom come with such depth. Yeah, I get it, sometimes you just want a McDonalds. But on occasion you also want to try some expensive, posh Michelin starred shit, the kind of food that is “deconstructed”, or has a “jus” (what the hell is a jus!?) Well Léon: The Professional, is that kind of poncy meal. But fucking Christ does it taste good. Get it watched.