Thursday, 29 October 2009
Leon: The Director's Cut
LEON (THE DIRECTOR’S CUT) (1994)
Written & Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman & Natalie Portman
The original cut of Leon is pretty much near perfect, at least in this humble reviewer’s eyes. The Director’s Cut (available for some time in other parts of the world but finally making an appearance on British shores) adds in an extra twenty minutes of footage that was originally cut and restores Leon to the beautiful, violent fairytale, epic it is. One of the defining films of the 1990s (again, at least in this reviewers eyes) the Director’s Cut of Leon fleshes out the dramatic backbone of the film, adds in a little more action and makes the doomed relationship between Leon and Mathilda even more bittersweet.
Taking his low-fi, street grit, widescreen scoped Euro style and applying it to the streets of New York in his first English language production, Luc Besson crafted the tale of a lonely hitman and a recently orphaned streetwise kid finding one another amongst the lowlifes of NY, automatic gunfire and Gary Oldman’s pill popping, suit wearing, homicidal nutcase police officer. Leon (Reno) is a “professional,” a hitman who works for Tony (a great Danny Aiello) taking out scumbags and drug dealers all over New York. He, his guns and his plant live in an apartment next door to Mathilda (Portman) and her lowlife family. Mathilda’s father has been holding drugs for shifty cop Stansfield (Oldman) and has skimmed a little off the top. Stansfield knows this and he and his goons come to collect, gunning down Mathilda’s family in the process. Mathilda manages to avoid the slaying and is taken in by Leon, who is at first reluctant to take in the wiser beyond her years youngster. Striking a deal where they will help each other, (Mathilda will do all the cleaning and shopping in return for being trained in the way of the hitman), the two form an unlikely alliance. Forced upon one another their lives are inevitably rocked as Mathilda begins to experience her first feelings of love towards a man and Leon sees life beyond killing. Plus, there is Gary Oldman’s pill popping, suit wearing, homicaidal nutcase police officer who knows Mathilda is still alive and will stop at nothing to eliminate her.
While Luc Besson may not be everyone’s favourite filmmaker, Leon is without a doubt his masterpiece. From the performances, to the direction, to the action, this modern day fantasy of hitmen and corrupt cops blends drama, action and the odd taboo into, well, the perfect combination. To go into how great it is would mean using too much hyperbole (amazing this, awesome that) so here is a list of its greatest achievements: the opening scene where we see Leon first perform his “cleaning” duties; the introduction of Stanfield and his henchman and the subsequent execution of Mathilda’s family; Stanfield’s “I like these quiet moments….” speech in said scene; Leon and Mathilda practising with a sniper’s rifle on some unaware joggers; the two dressing up as famous characters; Mathilda confronting Stansfield in the police building and Leon’s rescue of her; Stansfield shouting “EVERYONE”; and the final raid on Leon’s apartment that is a masterclass in action cinema and an emotional gut punch as Mathilda and Leon are separated.
But it’s not all stylized action and cool 90s cinema posing. At its core, Leon is simply about the heart: about two people left alone who find each other in amidst violence and danger. The relationship between Leon and Mathilda walks a fine line between innocent and inappropriate and the Director’s Cut explores this even more, pushing the taboo a little further. But it’s never salacious and ultimately it’s about finding a friend and learning to live again. While the emotions and the turmoil the characters experience are real, no-one would never mistake Leon for being a realistic depiction of hitmen and police procedural. It’s a heightened world where corrupt cops can walk about brandishing big guns and killing innocent people with no questions asked and gun fights and explosions can occur in cramped apartment buildings without the neighbours ever hearing a thing. But it’s all part of the fairytale aspect and at heart it’s the story that matters, not the reality.
In addition, we have Gary Oldman who teeters on a fine balance between great acting and overacting. Personally, it’s an incredible performance, Oldman firing at the top of his game keeping his manic energy just the right side of ham to embody a completely insane character. He certainly grandstands but still seems threatening, not least when he’s hopped up on those pills he keeps popping. Reno and Portman are hard to fault as all three of the main actors hold the film, the story, its emotions and its often violent outlandishness together. Even Danny Aiello is effective in his small role, the conversations he shares with Reno’s Leon being as rewarding and as vital as any of the big emotional or action scenes.
A modern fairytale, albeit with guns, Leon is an essential piece of cinema that manages to keep character, story, styling, action and drama all on track at the same time. Here comes that hyperbole again: quite simply a masterpiece.