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85. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: Léon

February 22, 2018

Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello
Runtime: 110 Minutes

 

Original UK Release: 1995

 

★★★★☆

 

Léon is a miraculous effort of action cinema, and many of its virtues are owed to the creative efforts of its writer and director, Luc Besson.

 

This is Besson’s first real work in trying to tackle the vestiges of Hollywood cinema that has clearly influenced and rooted itself into much of his work; an action thriller set in the big apple but shot for a majority in France, there’s a transatlantic heritage and influence to its design that paints a picture of an all-American landmark location in an entirely new light. But also comes the aesthetic, Besson’s gorgeous sense of space and composition, drifting and considered camera work brings so much beauty and emotion to its narrative in a way that is achingly cinematic and forever arresting.

 

A twist on the traditions of this kind of cinema, Jean Reno’s lonely assassin Léon (in a career-defining turn as the violent loner with the tenderness of a child) is forced into emotional bondage with a young orphaned child, and we see one of the genres most explicit, unique and tender relationships slowly blossom.

 

Natalie Portman’s debut as the young Mathilda is extraordinary, not since Jodie Foster’s Taxi Driver has a young woman’s breakthrough been so poignant in its balance of adulthood and inflexion. In many ways, it’s a love story where we see the stable relationship between sex and love sizzle in the chemistry that the two share on screen. Their thunder only being usurped whenever a gloriously extravagant Gary Oldman enters the frame as the slimy antagonist, Norman Stansfield.

 

The action is exceptional, selling every sequence and intense confrontation with a hard-edged flight of arthouse receptivity and visual balance. You totally believe that Léon is as dangerous as he appears without having to tell us, with a brilliantly fierce and earned heartbreak of a climax that breaks from so much convention by putting its heart ahead of the action and spectacle.

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