Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Review: Leon (aka The Professional) ***Spoilers***

La Femme Nikita, the film which introduced us to Jean Reno as 'The Cleaner', is a very different beast to Leon / The Professional. Although they share a character and a few bits of backstory, they don't share anything else. Not even the language. So I shall disregard Nikita entirely to avoid muddying the waters of this review.

If you can get your hands on it, the extended cut of Leon elaborates on the intended driving theme of the film, a burgeoning romance between a ruined, 13 year old orphan and an exploited 40-ish hitman. The excised scenes demonstrate that romance to be merely a dramatic crush from Matilda, sternly rebutted by Leon. However, a few beats here and there, such as Matilda's frank proposition that Leon take her virginity, make for uncomfortable viewing, and the film is better off without them.

Unfortunately, in cutting most of these scenes the baby has rather gone out with the bathwater, as most of Reno's nuance, and the core of the characters' arcs,  were here. What we are left with is a succession of comic scenes between the protagonists which, although well performed, paint Leon as a plant-loving innocent with lethal skills.
A simpleton Bourne, if you will.

So thank the heavens for Gary Oldman.

Three years after Leon, Gary Oldman would walk away with The Fifth Element as Jean-Baptiste Zurg. Besson gave Oldman that opportunity after his turn here as Stansfield. Oldman's performance is driving and unpredictable, a man poking at the bleeding edge of sanity, fuelled by drugs and protected by office. Besson puts obstructions in Stansfield's path, both physical and logistical, to frustrate his deluded machinations, so Oldman's parting, storming and swatting become a handy signpost of the villain's disregard for those around him, as well as giving rise to a few brief moments of dark humour.

The henchmen who surround Oldman are, in retrospect, redolent of the stock baddies Besson would carve out for the many B-actioners he would produce in later years. In this film, however, they are given enough to do to keep them distinct and interesting, if occasionally a little clownish.

The decidedly French, subversive vein of comedy running through Leon suggests Besson had total confidence in his ability to weave self-defeating humour into the film without undermining tension. Either that or he was oblivious to the possibility of jarring incongruence. The former seems more likely though, given his more overt, but less successful tonal play in his next film, The Fifth Element.

It is not unreasonable for him to have such boldness, however, as the action sequences in this film are some of the very best committed to film in the 1990's. The opening attack on Fatman's penthouse (yes, that is the character's name) introduces Leon brilliantly as an unseen, unstoppable angel of death. The attack on Matilda's family is pure carnage: disorienting, messy and brutal. The protracted final assault is a masterclass in geographical action direction, showing us a string of firefights and flights through an entire apartment block and the streets outside, without ever confusing our sense of orientation.

That is not all to commend the action. Note that at Fatman's, Leon wants to be efficient, unseen. At Matilda's, Oldman just wants to murder everyone and tear the place apart. In the final assault, Leon employs his superior knowledge of the environment to take the fight to his enemy. So Besson managed to marry the style of each action setpiece exactly to the mindset of the active parties, which is no mean feat.

Eric Serra's standard "string and ring" score sounds fairly indistinguishable from his Goldeneye score, and does little to enhance any sense of tension or heighten any emotion. Besson's fleeting views of the jagged but familiar Manhattan skyline were vaunted at the time of the film's release for evoking a jungle. However, contemporary overexposure to New York in action films, especially those of a superhero bent, has worn this originality thin. Coupled with the nondescript soundtrack, Leon is left without a distinctive stylistic identity. Besson would emphatically address this problem on The Fifth Element.

What the viewer takes away from Leon, therefore, is based entirely on the characters and motion of the movie. The action alone would be enough to make this film memorable, but Reno and Oldman, committed as they are to the extremes of their roles, elevate the film something almost mythological.

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