I rarely like mobster movies because they’re usually filled with over-the-top personalities that, in the real world, would have gotten them shot and buried in the first 30 minutes of the movie (see ‘John Wick’). With ‘Leon’, you get a slightly more realistic setting and slightly more plausible and relatable characters. The people who get caught in the middle of the underworld cocaine wars, and the tragedy that follows, are rarely talked about in mobster movies. Usually it’s just the direct people involved, like the mobsters and their families. This movie however, covers more perspectives and, while violent, gives a little more heart and soul to what would usually be a story about shallow and dark people.
In a seedy part of New York, Mathilda (played by a young Natalie Portman), is constantly abused by her family. Her father is a drug hoarder for the local mob. That is, until he gets the bright idea to steal a certain amount of the product from his bosses, for whatever reason. They catch on and tell him that he has one day to find the missing cocaine, or else. That day comes and the shit hits the fan. Fortunately, Mathilda is friends with a neighbour in the building, who just so happens to be a very skilled hit man (Jean Reno).
At this core of the themes here, it emphasises that people can live a normal life even if they have a colorful past. This makes the characters feel more real, compared to most action films. One person worth observing is Leon. He is a simple man who was put into a ugly job. Life tends to throw people all different directions and with small nuances of his character, one can only guess he’d be something other than a hitman in a different life. It’s very obvious that killing isn’t his passion and that he yearns to do pretty much anything else. In an odd way he was the softest of the characters in the film. Not only is he the “good guy,” but he also seems to be the most morally sound out of all the characters.
Another impressive aspect of this movie is the lighting aesthetics, which really compliment the flow of the story. There are many situations that have intense contrasts of light and dark and give some semblance of symbolism, while not giving away what it’s all about. This is quality lighting work; it isn’t over bearing which like in every other gangster movie. Also it doesn’t feel too generic, or intentionally animated (see ‘Sin City’). This is a film which is beautifully shot from scene to scene.
There is a small controversy surrounding this film. Some think there is a developing love story between Mathilda and Leon (Jean Reno), and assume it’s pedophilia. I disagree. First I think some of the phrasing might be a little odd because it was written by a Frenchman (Luc Besson), so the difference in cultures and writing abilities shows through sometimes. Common phrases in the United States version of English could be drastically different from any European version(s). Furthermore, Mathilda isn’t a stable child. She had a prostitute for a mother and a coke addict for a father. She isn’t going to behave normally around people who genuinely care for her. On top of that, every other scene is more like a father/daughter relationship. Each character helps the other grow and learn about life and love. So I don’t know why anyone would give it this moniker and try to turn this film into something darker than what it is.
This is one of my favorite mobster movies of all time, so you have to forgive some bias with this review. But honestly, for those who want a gangster movie, there’s plenty of violence and shooting. Alternatively, for those who want to see a good developmental piece, about how bad situations can make good people retain their humanity, then I’d recommend ‘Leon’ to you too. The cast, all around, did a great job as well, and we see some of the best performances that you’re likely to see from Natalie Portman, Jean Reno, and Gary Oldman. Admittedly, this movie doesn’t have much rewatch value, but it certainly leaves a lasting message – that life can be joyous even when circumstances are completely against you.
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jean Reno, Gary Oldman