Back in the 1980s and 90s, Luc Besson made good movies. Movies such as Nikita, The Big Blue, Subway and The Fifth Element. And, of course, this one – Léon, aka Léon: The Professional (in Australia and New Zealand) and just The Professional (The US, Canada and Spain).
It's the story of the relationship that develops betweeen professional hitman Léon (Reno) and Mathilda (Portman), a 12-year-old girl whose family is killed in a raid by corrupt DEA officers, led by Stansfield (Oldman). He reluctantly takes her in, and when Mathilda finds out what Léon does for a living, she insists he train her to be a "cleaner" too so that she can take revenge for the slaughter of her family.
Léon is a wonderful action film (made in the days before CGI took over, and stunts were done practically) and a stunning character piece. Set, and filmed, in grungy downtown New York, it's a gritty thriller that, at its heart, is about an teaching a sad, damaged loner how to love again. Pivotal to the film are the magnificent central performances from the always-superb Reno and Oldman, and a very young Portman in her first-ever role. The young actress shows a screen presence and confidence that is surpising in one so inexperienced in the film world.
There has been a bit of controversy over the years (especially in the US) over the relationship that develops between Léon and Mathilde. Some have said it's creepy, bordering on the paedophilic. If you watch besson's director's cut (which runs 22 minutes longer than the theatrical version) you'll see that it's nothing of the sort. It's the story of the strong bond that develops between two lost, lonely souls. Each comes to depend on the other – and in their own way, yes, love each other – but there is certainly nothing sexual or creepy there.
Léon holds up very well 20 years on. It's fascinating to look back and see these performances from these three amazing actors in this beautifully-made drama that will hold up just as well another 20 years from now.
EXTRAS There are two versions of the film – the director's cut (132min) and the theatrical cut (110min). For a 20th anniversary release, the extras here are pretty poor – just short interviews with star Reno (6:45) and Eric Serra, the film's composer (9:40). No audio commentary, no deleted scenes, no making-of, no interviews with Besson, Portman, or Oldman. Such a shame.