Léon (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #51

He moves without sound.
Kills without emotion.
Disappears without trace.

Also Known As: The Professional (USA) *shudder*

Country: France
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes | 132 minutes (version intégrale)
BBFC: 18 | 15 (version intégrale)

Original Release: 14th September 1994 (France)
US Release: 18th November 1994
UK Release: 3rd February 1995
First Seen: VHS, c.1999

Jean Reno (Les visiteurs, Ronin)
Natalie Portman (Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Black Swan)
Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Luc Besson (Nikita, The Fifth Element)

Luc Besson (The Transporter, Taken)

The Story
When her family are murdered by a corrupt police officer, 12-year-old Mathilda runs to hide with her quiet, reclusive neighbour, Léon. Turns out he’s a hitman, and she begins to train with him so she can exact her revenge…

Our Heroes
As the title character, Jean Reno’s child-like hired killer is likeable, sympathetic, and quite sweet — traits one wouldn’t typically associate with his profession. As his young ward, Mathilda, Natalie Portman is compelling, playing a hardened, emotionally bruised kid in desperate need of support and guidance, more so than she needs vengeance.

Our Villain
Gary Oldman brings pure entertainment value to the film in one of his most iconic performances: Stansfield, the crazy copper with a penchant for both drugs and quotable dialogue.

Best Supporting Character
There’s not much room for anyone else to stand out around the three lead performances, but Danny Aiello comes closest as Léon’s kindly mafioso handler, Tony.

Memorable Quote
Stansfield: “Bring me everyone.”
Benny: “What do you mean ‘everyone’?”
Stansfield: “EV-RY-ONE.

Memorable Scene
As Mathilda returns home from buying groceries, she sees the door to her family’s apartment open and a man standing suspiciously outside. As she nears, she catches a glimpse inside — her father sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. She keeps walking, pretending not to have seen, and approaches Léon’s door — where he’s been watching through his peephole. Trying to hold back tears, she rings his bell. Behind the door, Léon fidgets, not answering — he doesn’t want to get involved. She pleads under her breath. She rings again. The man at her door watches, suspicious. She rings again, desperate. Léon is torn… OK, you know all along what he’s going to do, but Besson’s direction and the performances from Portman and Reno ring every second of tension out of the sequence.

Letting the Side Down
Some people find the relationship between Léon and Mathilda problematic, and that gets in the way of their enjoyment of the movie. I’ve never seen it that way. Mathilda tries to inappropriately push herself on Léon, but he never takes her up on it. He’s a child himself in many ways and that side of life doesn’t seem to engage him at all, never mind in an unacceptable fashion.

Making of
The film’s second shot (still in the credits) is a tracking shot that travels along a New York road without stopping. It was only possible after studying the pattern of the traffic lights along the route to make sure the camera truck didn’t encounter any red lights.

Previously on…
The film was inspired by Jean Reno’s role in Besson’s previous film, Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita), in which he turns up in the third act as “Victor the Cleaner”, dressed in an outfit similar to Léon’s, to deal with Nikita’s botched mission.

Next time…
Besson wrote a script for a sequel focusing on a grown-up Mathilda. While they waited for Portman to age into the role, Besson left Gaumont to start his own studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at his departure, Gaumont have apparently refused to let him have the necessary rights. According to Olivier Megaton (the director of Besson projects like Transporter 3 and both Taken sequels) it will now likely never happen. Reportedly the script was recycled into Colombiana, which I am now 100% more interested in seeing.

7 César nominations (Film, Actor (Jean Reno), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“For Luc Besson, [Léon] is a poetic brute, a man without humanity who has lived so close to darkness for so long that he has lost all connection to the light. The universe around him, too, is a symbolic construction, an interweaving of opera, film noir and existentialism, where the larger-than-life forces of innocence and corruption explode in blood and violence. […] Reno plays it minimally; Oldman splatters his performance all over the screen. Oldman is the least inhibited actor of his generation, and as this deranged detective, he keeps absolutely nothing in reserve. When the camera gets close to him, you feel as if you want to back away. […] Stansfield’s signature is his passion for music. He thinks of everything, even his blood orgies, in terms of rhythm and color. You want Beethoven? he asks, picking up a shotgun. I’ll play you some Beethoven. Fortunately, Besson structures his film in much the same way. Not only does music play an important role in giving texture to his material, his scenes — especially the violent ones — are presented as arias, chamber pieces, symphonies.” — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

Worst Spurious Connection in a Supposedly Professional Review
“A favorite of IMDb fanboys (who have absurdly — but predictably — ranked it the 27th best movie of all time!) and reportedly of pedophiles as well” — Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing (You’re right about one thing, though, Matt: 27th is ridiculous — Léon is top ten material.)

Counterpoint to Mr Brunson
“[It] would go on to become one of his most highly-regarded films among audiences. Sadly it was not thought of nearly as well by critics, merely receiving somewhat average reviews, giving us another sad oversight [and] proving that there are those times where the general audience can have more perception into a film than those that analyze them for a living.” — Jeff Beck, examiner.com

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“In spite of ranking on the top ten lists of many, many movie fans since its release, my love for [Léon] was not immediate. As a matter of fact I pretty much disliked it on the first and second outings because I couldn’t quite grasp what Luc Besson was going for with this film. It’s not an action movie, it’s more of a love story set to the tone of bloodshed and corruption, a subtle poetic masterpiece that relies on characterization and artistic strokes of pure raw emotion than some shoot em up gangster flick. […] I’ve come to truly appreciate what a pure piece of brilliant filmmaking this is and the loose allusions this has toward another Besson masterpiece La Femme Nikita. Everything about this film from the performances right down to the set pieces are like pieces of moving art, and Besson is the artist with the brush. […] Besson’s incomparable film is almost impossible to beat and there’s yet to be a director who could match his magnum opus. Even after almost twenty years, [Léon] stands as the superlative masterpiece of action filmmaking and has yet to be matched or toppled by any director in the business.” — Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed the extended “version intégrale” cut of the film in 2008, asserting that “I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. […] I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. […] Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.”


Léon delivers the kind of tense sequences of action you’d imagine of a dramatic action-thriller (i.e. not highly-choreographed punch-ups every five minutes, but the action scenes that do appear are suspenseful), but the film’s real joy lies in its characters, who are expertly performed and wonderful to spend time with (in a movie context — in real life, I wouldn’t be so sure…) As a whole, Besson brews the grittily realistic with something far more fantastical to create a film that is, perhaps, a little too unique for some to get a handle on (I’m thinking of the handful of low-rated critics reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which fly in the face of the consensus opinion). For the majority, however, Léon is a gripping, characterful, rewatchable masterpiece.

#52 just can’t wait… to be king.

Flushed Away (2006)

2008 #57
David Bowers & Sam Fell | 81 mins | DVD | U / PG

Flushed AwayAardman Animations, the Bristol-based company most famous for Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts, branch out into CGI for the first time with this tale of rats trying to save the sewers of London. CGI rats? Yes, thoughts of Ratatouille are inevitable. Can Aardman beat Pixar at their own game? You might be surprised…

The primary reason for comparison here, as mentioned, are the rats. Despite Pixar’s stated intention to redeem rats in the eyes of viewers — to turn them from vermin into loveable little fluffy things, essentially — I felt the same about bloody rodents at the end of Ratatouille as I did at the start. Here, however, they’re Disneyfied (oh the irony) — where Pixar had cartooned versions of the real thing, Aardman have given them a human shape. It’s surely this disjunction from reality that makes them more likeable, but it does mean there’s never that distracting “but they’re vermin” impulse. They’re humanisation is helped by the performances of a star-studded cast, including Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet amongst the ratty voices. Ian McKellen is a fabulously dastardly villain, ably supported by a pair of comedy henchman… and Jean Reno as a French frog. Yep, the humour is that British.

One thing Pixar unquestionably still excel at is the actual animation, however. Ratatouille is gorgeous to watch and will take some effort to beat; Flushed Away, on the other hand, doesn’t really come close to Pixar’s earlier efforts, never mind Ratatouille’s artistry. It’s mostly passable, especially once the action migrates to the mini-London in the sewers, but at other times it looks little better than a computer game. The second biggest mistake (I’ll get to the worst in a minute) is opening the film in a pristine up-market house — presumably it was an artistic choice to have it so tidy and clean, but this has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting the animation’s plainness right from the start. Once the story moves underground the level of detail improves, but it takes a little while to get there.

A bigger error was made with the lip-synching, however, and obviously this dogs the film throughout. Aardman consciously designed the characters’ mouth movements to imitate the clay animation the company usually employs (Flushed Away is CG because of the volume of water featured, an element too complex to achieve in stop motion). Instead of invoking that stop motion feel it just looks cheap and underdone — such jerkiness is easily ignored as part of the technique when viewing clay animation, but there’s no need or excuse for it in CGI. Ultimately it looks like the animators were lazy or the rendering has skipped frames, and is frequently distracting.

It’s possible to put the disappointing quality of the animation aside though, because the script’s a good’un. Like the animation it doesn’t really get going until we’re flushed into the sewers, but once there it’s pleasantly witty, full of good one-liners and clever visual gags. The latter includes a good line in intertextuality, with entertaining and easily-noticed references to Finding Nemo, X-Men and others, including numerous nods to Wallace & Gromit. They don’t dominate, but their variety makes for a nice bit of I-spy for both kids and adults of varying degrees of film-buffery.

Despite the inevitable comparisons, Flushed Away is really a very different beast to Ratatouille. Pixar’s effort is, for want of a better word, artistic; Flushed Away is simply a family-orientated slice of adventure-comedy… rather of the kind you might expect Pixar to produce. Aardman’s initial CG effort is not better or worse than ‘the other CG rat flick’, but it is perhaps more like what you — or, at least, kids — would expect. With a starry cast, strong script and good sense of visual comedy, Flushed Away manages to overcome its lower production values to create an above-average piece of entertainment. And that’s, as Wallace would say, cracking.

4 out of 5

Léon: Version Intégrale (1994/1996)

2008 #42
Luc Besson | 127 mins | DVD | 15*

Léon: Version IntégraleI first saw Léon about 10 years ago, back when video was still an acceptable way of watching things. A friend leant it to me, insisting it was a film I absolutely had to see, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s remained one of my favourite films ever since, though typically I haven’t watched it more than once or twice in the intervening decade. (It also fostered a love for Sting’s closing song, Shape of My Heart, which is criminally missing from a Greatest Hits CD my dad owned (even though his dire song from Demolition Man is on there), and in moderately recent years was indifferently reused by both Sugababes and Craig David.)

I became aware of this extended cut a few years ago, a little while before it was released on R1 DVD. Having held out for a UK R2 release for about half a decade now, I gave in and bought the (apparently superior, and also in a Steelbook, which always has a way of persuading me) German R2. It’s labelled as a “Director’s Cut” but, as Besson states in the relatively lengthy booklet (translated with the aid of [the now defunct] Babel Fish), “the second version is neither better nor worse than the original” — it’s not a preferred cut, just a different, extended one.

But personally, I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing of course, but I don’t think that’s happened here. The additions build on the characters and relationships, primarily between the two leads, and also add extra doses of humour and action. Besson wasn’t necessarily wrong to remove these things from his original cut — the extent of Léon and Mathilda’s relationship is especially controversial for some, and the extended scenes of Léon training Mathilda as a Cleaner are arguably extraneous — but they all add to the experience. Wisely, he doesn’t seem to have touched what was already there. Everything that was great about the original — from the astounding performances of Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, to the thrilling action sequences, and plenty else in between — remains intact. They’ve not been buggered about with, just expanded around.

Ultimately, the reason I prefer this version is quite simple: I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. I can understand objections to the insinuations about Léon and Mathilda’s relationship, but I didn’t find it any creepier here than it was before (besides which, any paedophilic notions come from her and he quashes them). The quality of the performances in the new scenes, plus other solid additions, make all the new bits worthwhile.

The version intégrale isn’t too much of a good thing, then, just more of a great thing. To my mind, Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.

5 out of 5

* The original cut of Léon was last classified in 1996 and given an 18. The longer version was classified in 2009 and received a 15. That must be a pretty rare case of a longer version (technically) having a lower certificate. ^