Everything you need to know about Leon can be found in the cracks and dips of Jean Reno’s face. With those iconic circular sunglasses in place, he’s a fearsome figure of cool.
And this is a film that knows a thing or two about that. It uses a language and iconography of cool all its own. Leon’s glass of milk. Vents, slowly creeping open. The trench-coat full of grenades. It’s a vocabulary that echoes through a good majority of action films made since, and games. Especially games.
Coming out in 1994, in the wake of Doom and at the advent of 3d shooters, it isn’t hard to see a little Leon threaded through gaming history. In one small sequence, it taught the pleasures of the sniper rifle. As Leon shows his protégé Mathilda how to stare , carefully picking her moment and waiting… waiting… thump. And you can’t help but imagine a hundred darkened rooms of game developers scribbling away.
Because that’s Leon: a man sharpened into a single-purpose tool. And it’s easy to believe Jean Reno could be that person. He’s got angles in all the right places, and stubble that someone manages to be world-weary in and of itself.
But then take the glasses off, and those big innocent eyes are revealed. You start to notice his little mousey teeth. Get Jean Reno looking at the camera in just the right way, and he’s childlike. He is an ice-cold killer, true, but when the film reveals he’s a victim, being taken advantage of by his boss, it’s hardly a surprise.
Leon’s success is entirely dependent on the chosen actors in the film, something you could pass off as inspired casting. But Natalie Portman, 13 year-old Natalie Portman, is perfect for reasons that could never be predicted. She’s awkwardly sexualised: not in the Sucker Punch sense, but in a way that’s honest to that messy transition from childhood to adulthood. And this is made all the more fascinating, and excruciating, for the figure she’s bloomed into. There’s a line to be drawn between Black Swan and here, not to mention that bit in the Your Highness trailer where she strips down to some kind of medieval thong.
There’s a sequence where she dresses as a sequence of pop-cultural icons – including the Madonna singing Like A Virgin, doing a husky Marilyn Monroe impression of that come-hither Happy Birthday. It’s something I’d entirely forgotten was in the film, and it’s possibly its greatest moment. Leon can’t quite look directly at her – those big Jean Reno eyes, again – and neither can you. It’s more painful for the pleasure you’ve probably taken in a bethonged Portman in the years since.
Meanwhile, Leon responds with an attempt at John Wayne. It shows how the characters are working from two separate spheres of reference, joined only at the unlikely hip of Gene Kelly. It’s got touches at my most beloved theme, of how pop culture informs and crafts identity.
And then there’s Gary Oldman. A twitchy, quirky bad guy, full of crunched-between-the-teeth pills and Beethoven. His looks are the weasel to Reno’s mousiness, effortlessly carrying both a sense of sleaziness and of how deranged he is, in a way that recalls, nearly two decades early, Ledger’s Joker.
So, all these familiar faces. Leon understands what they can do, and spends a lot of time pushing you into their faces. Watching an extensive shot of the quietly crying face of Mathilda as she simultaneously grieves and prays for her life, is torturous. And so it builds tension and atmosphere, but also sympathy.
The scenes of Leon’s everyday life, alone and then with Mathilda, are surprisingly touching. He makes a puppet out of a novelty pig oven-glove. They have water-fights and do impressions of celebrities, whether Madonna or John Wayne. For a film about an assassin, these scenes clash directly against the other half, and it makes both more interesting and satisfying.
As Leon softens – Mathilda inevitably going the other way, and forcing herself to harden – he spends less and less time with the glasses on. Until it’s time for them to go back on, and then the stylish violence begins.