Gary Oldman finally got his Oscar. And a much deserved one at that. His turn as the plucky politician Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour has finally netted him cinema’s most recognized award. But I don’t think it’s his most memorable role. Nor his best. Admit it – Oldman does his best work as the bad guy. And he’s played some of the baddest. Dracula, that dude who killed JFK, a rasta psychopath in True Romance, some crocked tycoon in Fifth Element, a crazy billionaire with a fucked up face trying to gain revenge on Hannibal Lecter. The list goes on. Yet he was at his most crazed, his most brilliant, in 1994’s Léon: The Professional.
If you’ve somehow not seen it (why not) or not read the review (do that now), here’s the scenario; Léon (Jean Reno – Godzilla) is a a professional killer with something missing from his life. He lives next door to a fucked up family who is holding drugs for a crazy and corrupt DEA agent, Norman Stansfield (Oldman). One day, while one of the family, 12 year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman – V for Vendetta) is out running an errand, Stansfield turns up and kills everybody out of revenge for the dad screwing with his dope. Léon takes in Mathilda and eventually begins to teach her the ways of the hitman. They develop a close friendship. But she’s also a bit mental, and wants mad revenge for the death of her baby brother. When she fails to kill Stansfield herself, Léon gets involved and it culminates in an explosive showdown.
Now, as explained in my recent review, Léon: The Professional is a personal favourite of mine. It mixes badass action with a soulful, sweet story. While the bulk of the film relates to the growing relationship between Léon and Mathilda, its the continued presence of their pursuer, the evil Stansfield, that keeps the clock ticking. Think about it; a contract killer suddenly being responsible for a young, messed up child would be one thing, but being chased by an unhinged murdering cop is quiet another. It’s the very nature of Stansfield’s mania that makes him such a threat, thus heightening the stakes for Mathilda and Léon.
But what makes him tick? Why is he so frightening, so iconic?
Lets look at his first appearance. As Léon gets his “how badass is this guy” intro, Stansfield gets his own “how bad is this guy” scene. First, we don’t even see his face. He has his back to us. He doesn’t deem us worthy yet. This is chicken shit stuff to him. A mere layover between real jobs. We’re in the apartment block, and he’s doing a collection from Mathilda’s dad (Michael Badalucco). His number one dude, Malky (Peter Appel – Spider-Man) is doing the talking. Somehow the 100% pure dope they left last month is now only 90% pure.
He warns Badalucco that unless he gives him some straight answers, he’s gonna have to bother Stan over there, who is deep into his music. And he doesn’t like being disturbed when he’s into his music. Really, does anyone though? Especially if you’re really deep into it. My fucking girlfriend creeps up on me all the time when I’m cranking up my Spotify playlist. My reaction of equal parts shock and anger are genuine, if only for a second. She’s lucky I’m not some pill-popping, gun-totting psychopath, like Stan.
At first he doesn’t believe what he’s hearing so Malky has to repeat it. “Oh”. The finality of his intonation is like the hands of God are now set in motion. Shit is gonna go down, and nothing is going to stop it. We also get our first look at him. His hair is greasy, unkempt and sort of slicked back. His face glistens with a sheen of sweat, and his mouth framed by an emerging, unshaven goatee. He wears a beige suit and a white shirt, neither of which looks ironed or well kept, as if he found them in some old suitcase that morning. But it’s his eyes that keep you fixed. Wild, staring, all-seeing.
I like this choice of look from director Luc Besson. Remember at this stage we don’t know that he’s a cop. His appearance aids that deception. We think he’s just some generic scumbag drug dealer. It comes as a shock when we realize he’s police because not only does he not act like how we’d expect, he doesn’t look like it either. It’s a double whammy of fuckery of Besson’s part, the sneaky git.
Think about all those films where there are bent cops. They never look or act crazy. Denzel (Magnificent Seven) is the picture of cool and control in Training Day. Matt Damon (The Great Wall) is a slick, clean shaven maverick cop in The Departed. Then you’ve got neo-conservative looking Harvey Keitel in Cop Land. Go back farther and you’ll come across Lt. Briggs in Magnum Force. Their only problem is keeping things quiet and how best to spend their hush money without anyone getting wise.
Compare this to Stansfield who looks like he barely has a pot to piss in. He actually looks and acts like a criminal. But he operates with such confidence that you never doubt he’ll get away with the evil shit he commits. He’s clearly dirty, but he’s not sneaky like those other snakes. He’s more like the Joker than some master criminal. As director Christopher Nolan wanted Heath Ledger’s makeup and costume to look, you can almost taste the sweat and grime oozing from Stansfield.
He sniffs at Badalucco and gets real close. This scene was improvised, with Badalucco’s reaction of unease genuine. Clearly he’s not used to some Brit getting right in his personal space. Stansfield believes him but warns he’ll be back tomorrow for the right answers. Noon.
Two minutes to 12:00 the next day and he’s back, with some heavy dudes including Malky and Vin Diesel prototype Benny – played by Keith A. Glasgoe (Assault on Devils Island). While only a throw away character, Glasgoe would later retire from acting and become a NYC firefighter. He tragically lost his life at 911. He’s the real badass of this movie.
Stan pops a pill before he breaches. While he’s already mental, this tips him over the edge. The way it twists his body is both painful and wonderful. He explains to his nervous muscle:
“I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. It’s like when you out you’re head to the grass you can hear the insectsssss”.
He then storms in, alone, shotgun in hand, as if to music playing in his head. While Besson went with longtime collaborator Eric Serra to do the music for Léon, Stansfield’s moments here seem orchestrated, as if the to the beat of some grand opening symphony. He does not fear any retaliation and makes no attempt to clear each room like a trained killer (compare this to the scene where Léon and Mathilda enters the drugs lab for her first hit, for example). As described in this excellent article, “he begins the massacre which Oldman plays as a perverse dance. As he goes about killing everyone in the apartment of the stooge Oldman has such unending glee as he does it. He is so sadistic yet so light on his feet as he maneuvers through the scene that he not only manages to bring the brutality to the scene yet allows it to be darkly comic.”
What also cracks me up is how nervous his guys are outside. They know this shit is crazy but they also know that they should be backing up their guy. But there is a real risk of being taken out in such a wild, reckless raid. Fuck, Stansfield himself is probably as likely to kill them by accident. My favorite part about the scene is when he casually walks across the hallway and his henchmen dive to the floor in fear. Even his own men are scared to death of him when he goes on these drug-induced rampages.
As he reaches Badalucco he explains he stopped the killing because he’d gotten to the part in his head where Beethoven becomes boring. See, this was just part of a game, something fun, not the serious murdering that a regular scumbag would do. He only stops because it’s boring. The high has passed. Pure self indulgence. Again this was improvised by Oldman on set. I think this reflects on the flexibility of Besson with his actors, and Oldman having a lot of fun with the character. It also illicits genuine responses from the other actors in the room.
Ironically, his knowledge of the classical maestro would come in handy later that year, as he portrayed Beethoven himself in Immortal Beloved. Delicious irony.
When Badalucco gets the drop on everyone, Stansfield takes one in the shoulder. He goes down and plays dead. As Badalucco escapes, Stansfield catches him in the back, with a grin on his face, like “Hahah, he’s fallen for this shit”. This is a recurring theme in this movie; he is behind Mathilda in the bathroom when she turns up to kill him, then kills Léon with a bullet in the back at the climax. While we know and he knows it’s Léon he’s killing, were it an actual policeman he shot by accident it would have made no odds to him. Just one more body to write off.
But he’s pissed that he awful cheap suit has a hole in it, and empties his pistol into the still-alive Badalucco’s back. As he reloads (as if he’s going to shoot him some more), Malky catches up to him. “He’s dead” he explains, and takes him outside. Here he gives some grief to some crocked old lady who tells them to “leave that family alone”.
He puts a bullet in the glass door next to her. “We told you to go back inside”. Malky figures it’s best to keep him back in the crime scene. When the cops arrive, he scarpers, but not in any particular hurry. He tells his rasta goon Willie One Blood to wait, to tell them that “we were only doing our jobs”. He says it in such a definitive way as if it is a perfectly reasonable excuse for all this unreasonable shit.
Later, when Mathilda returns to the scene to find her Dad’s stashed money, Stansfield and some other cops arrive. He’s having to explain what’s happened and doesn’t do the best job. His rationale is that one of his guys got killed here, and is angry he’s answering bullshit questions, as if he’s being asked by children. He hasn’t got time for this Mickey Mouse bullshit, and tells them if they have any further questions to come and find him in his office.
Outside he steals a ball from some local street kids. “Kids should be in school”, as he throws it out of reach, the dick. He’d mentioned this previously in the apartment when quizzed about the dead children. “I don’t know, shouldn’t they have been in school”. Clearly he has some form of twisted ethics, despite having no qualms about killing them himself. It’s a rare thing for kids to not be off limits in action films. Sure they’re used as bait or leverage in plenty. But how many do you see where the bad dude actually kills them? Not many. Stan doesn’t even hesitate here.
As Mathilda tails him back to his office, I find it highly amusing seeing him enter the building. A few suited regular type cops nod and wave at him. What, do they shoot the shit with him over the water cooler? Does he attend staff meetings, or fat Brenda’s birthday party etc? It’s weird to think he has a regular cop life too, because he’s so outlandishly evil and violent.
When Mathilda turns up to kill him, he again deduces her ploy easily, catching her alone in the bathroom. He approaches her menacingly before popping another pill. He tries the nice approach. “What’s your name angel”, as if his bogus sincerity will dispel the obvious danger she’s in. He asks who sent her to kill him. Nobody she responds. Oh so it’s personal.
He’s almost offended, disgusted. “What filthy piece of shit did I do now?” Deep down he realizes what he is, how depraved he is. But he doesn’t care. There is no well meaning good intentions buried deep down. They say the way to Hell is paved with good intentions. Well Norman Stansfield doesn’t do paving. He does the rest of the fucking city planning instead.
As he pulls a gun he plays with her, like a cat with an insect. He is faux remorseful, almost sympathetic.
“It’s always the same thing; it’s when you begin to become afraid of death that you learn to appreciate life. Do you like life sweetheart?”
He smiles when she respond yes, tears streaming down her face.
“Good because I take no pleasure in taking a life from a person who doesn’t care about it.”
He grins in malice and prepare to shoot, once again without concern that he’s going to have to somehow explain why he shot a child in the middle of a police station. That shit does not even enter his brain.
Willie One Blood interrupts them. Malky is dead, it’s revealed (taken out by Léon). This causes Stansfield to pause. “Death is whimsical today”. As he thinks he points the gun, hap-hazardly, at One Blood. I love how afraid of Stansfield he clearly is. Better the devil you know, right?
The decision is made to keep Mathilda alive for the moment while he goes to check Malky’s corpse. Natalie Portman would later say of her character’s sole interaction with Stansfield: “Working with Gary Oldman was probably the easiest acting experience of my life…I don’t think I had to act at all in that scene. I mean, it was really simple, because he really does what he does well…It’s pretty amazing to get to see it that close, but it was also a gift to me.” High praise indeed.
Looking for answers, Stansfield and an even bigger group of goons crashes Tony’s (Danny Aiello)’s birthday party. He’s Léon’s handler. Stansfield doesn’t give a damn if this is his birthday or that there are kids around. The prick probably even cancelled the puppet show. He admits that in the past he’s always been more than happy with the work Tony has done for him. This implies that there is a possibility that Léon even killed for Stansfield once upon a time. Due this respect for him this conversation is going to be very, very hard for Stansfield. Tony will later turn up bruised and beaten. He didn’t give up Léon easily.
When he’s cornered Léon at his apartment he doesn’t go himself. Oh no, he knows his prey is far too dangerous. Better to soften him up with some SWAT guys first. “Be careful” he kindly recommends. When a few get taken out he’s quick to point out “I told you”. Looks like he’s going to need a few more guys. Cue his most famous line:
“What’s funny is that the line was a joke and now it’s become iconic,” Oldman told Playboy. “I just did it one take to make the director, Luc Besson, laugh. The previous takes, I’d just gone, ‘Bring me everyone,’ in a regular voice. But then I cued the sound guy to slip off his headphones, and I shouted as loud as I could. That’s the one they kept in the movie. When people approach me on the street, that’s the line they most often say.”
When Léon slips the net of police disguised as an injured SWAT team member, it’s Stansfield who susses him out. Despite never meeting him, he correctly deduces his identity. But instead of blowing his ruse, he waits for him, shooting him unseen in the back moments from freedom. “Stansfield?” the dying Léon asks as he stands over him victorious.
“At your service” he says smugly, like a good cop would.
Léon hands him a pin from a grenade (of which he has many). “Shit” is all Stansfield can manage before being consumed in a fireball. Mathilda at last has her revenge.
Oldmans turn as corrupt cop runs anathema to modern day portrayals. He’s wild, unkempt, and out of control. It’s never explained how he keeps such a grip without him being discovered and it doesn’t need to be explained. It’s far more effective to imagine him as some unstoppable force, some supernatural monster that is exempt from reason and explanation.
Compare him to Léon, the central character, whom is the very picture of repression and decency. Stansfield was devised as a contrasting character with whom Besson describes “anything was possible. Anything.” Another facet that Besson injected into the role was dark humour. “A movie without humour somewhere, is not a movie. A movie needs humour”. Indeed, Oldman’s excesses have to be seen to be believed.
Oldman said of Besson’s direction: “You share ideas, and if you come up with an idea that he likes, you can bet your bottom dollar that it’ll go in the movie. I liked working with Luc so much that if I actually never worked with another director again, it wouldn’t worry me.” And he meant that shit too; Besson cast Oldman as the primary bastard of his next project, 1997 blockbuster The Fifth Element, and co-produced Oldman’s directorial debut Nil by Mouth, released the same year.
Stansfield stands as a terrifying, insane, almost comic-book villain, and Oldman effortlessly walks the fine line between the believable and the crass. Often copied, but never beaten, he stands as a firm and proud member of the movie bastard elite, for all times.
Name: Norman “Stan” Stansfield
Age: Unknown (30-45)
Motivation: Greed/Mania/Evil – Stansfield plays the drugs game, but revels in killing and random acts of evil.
Background: DEA agent.
On-Screen Kills: 4 (and one glass door)
Favorite Method: Gunshot (six shooter or pump-action shotgun)
Best Bastard Moment: Almost apologizing for killing Mathilda’s baby brother, before turning and admitting he only gets off on killing people who treasure their lives.
Death/Defeat: Blown up by a string of grenades found on the body of Léon.
Behind the Scenes: Actor Gary Oldman improvised many of his scenes and lines, including the infamous EVERYONE moment as a joke.
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