When Leon was originally released in cinemas back in 1994, most reviews commented on the fact that it was morally dubious for a film to portray the training of a 12 year old girl as a hitman. It can’t be denied that Leon is amoral by nature - this is a graphically violent film, which also hints at a sexual relationship between a 12 year old girl and a much older hitman – however, what also can’t be denied is that this is a wonderfully entertaining film which breaks many conventions of the modern day thriller.
When 12 year old Mathilda’s family are killed by a drug infused maniac (Gary Oldman) over a drug deal gone wrong, Mathilda (a young Natalie Portman) is adopted by Leon (Jean Reno), the hitman next door. In return for cleaning the apartment and reading lessons, Leon agrees to teach Mathilda some of the secrets of his craft. With an impending sense of dread, the film slowly builds up the tension until a final confrontation between Leon and the man who killed Mathilda’s family.
Everything about this film is over-emphasized, from Gary Oldman’s drug crunching (and completely over the top) manic bad guy to the explosive final confrontation. I must admit that this didn’t really bother me too much as it added to the overall interest and intrigue of the film and resulted in a stylised urban thriller which is clearly devolved from reality (unsurprising given this is a Jean Luc Besson film). Everything in the film is overly stylised, from the character’s clothes and dialogue to the soundtrack and set design. This is an approach which I think works superbly and gives the film a sense of originality and freshness which very few films manage to achieve (although it is doubtful whether any film can claim to be truly original in the modern era).
For me, it was the performance of the two central characters which really drives the film. Many would think that a graphically violent thriller would be strongly driven by story and action, but I think this is one of the few exceptions whereby the strong characterisation is the reason that this film is so highly rated on IMDB. The interaction between Leon and Mathilda is quite frankly captivating and deals with some interesting concepts, most importantly being the appropriateness of the relationship between the two. For me, I think that whilst Mathilda and Leonboth love each other, they are two very different kinds of love. Mathilda clearly logves leon like a lover (even though she is 12), however Leon reciprocates that love as a father figure and clearly demonstrates in the final scene that his only desire is to protect Mathilda from harm.
Overall, I thought Leon was a superb film. It is entertaining, feels fresh and original (or at least I imagine it would have done at the time of release) and has characters which are fundamentally interesting. Sure there may be some plot holes and the whole thing may be entirely over the top and removed from reality but it is that wackiness which captivates. This is one I will watch again.