Leon (1994) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This is a notable movie in many ways. It is the flick that jump-started Natalie Portman's career in almost the same way that Taxi Driver started Jodie Foster's or Pretty Baby started Brooke Shields's. All three played kids too old for their years. It was also the first American film from French auteur Luc Besson, and is rated by IMDb viewers as among the best 100 of all time.

Well, don't believe that best 100 stuff.

It is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. The violence is done with spectacular balletic choreography and pin-point coordination with the music. In fact, the coordination of photography, music, acting, characterization and emotional intensity could easily qualify this as one of the best movies ever made, but there is one big flaw. I'll get to that in a minute.

First of all, let's get the general premise out of the way. Jean Reno is a professional hitman who lives in a succession of cold water flats, wears 10 year old shoes, never shaves, and has only one pair of pants (and that pair five or six inches too short). He makes a lot of money doing hits for the mob, but he never takes any of the money because he has no use for it. The mob boss "holds" it for him. He can't read or write. By the way, this is more or less the same character Reno played in Besson's "La Femme Nikita", except that the first name is different.

Natalie Portman plays a 12 year old kid whose drug dealer dad and her entire family are killed by renegade DEA agents. She was spared only because of some fast thinking and Reno's aid.

Well, she decides that she's in love with Reno and that she wants to be a hit woman to get revenge on the DEA. Reno agrees to teach her, but doesn't agree to screw her - although he's moving in that direction and has started sleeping next to her without sex.

In a hilariously over-the-top finale, Portman and Reno are trapped in their apartment by 200 cops and federal agents. Portman escapes through a ventilation shaft, and Reno almost escapes after taking out about 100 of the cops and disguising himself as one of them. He probably would have made it, except that his wounds caused him to collapse just before he made it out to the street.



What about that flaw? We're not talking about a zit here. We're talking the Black Plague. This script makes no sense at all. Here are some of the  details. Bear in mind that the entire movie took place over a four week period.

  • About halfway through, the previously illiterate Reno tells the mob boss "I can read now". OK, he's a quick study. Name an adult who learned to read in two weeks. This particular guy would have taken that long to learn the names of the five vowels.
  • To show that she's ready, Portman takes one of Reno's guns and fires it repeatedly down at passersby. Nothing ever comes of it. No police, no neighbors. Nobody checks it out,
  • Reno teaches Portman how to be a sniper from the top of the Plaza Hotel, firing at joggers in Central Park, about five hundred yards away. It is silly enough that Portman hits a guy on her first-ever shot with a rifle from that distance (with blood capsule bullets), but when Reno sets up the scope, he never adjusts it for wind or gravity (more important at long distances). He just pops it on there, she looks through, and hits the guy in the chest. Then they calmly pack up the rifle and leave.
  • We hear that Portman's school in is Wildwood, New Jersey, but she is able to get there by taking the skyride to Roosevelt Island. Huh?
  • In the shoot-out sequence, Portman is first captured on the way back to Reno's room. The officers ask if she has keys (she does) and if there is a special secret knock she uses. She gives them a false knock to warn Leon. But why would they ask her about a knock if she took the keys with her?
  • There are at least two day-night continuity errors.
DVD info from Amazon
  • Production notes

  • Director's Cut Includes An Additional 24 Minutes of Footage

  • Isolated Music Score

  • Animated Menus

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35:1

But as bad as the script is, I have actually watched some scenes over again several times to admire the precision of the music and the actor's movements. Besson isn't much of a writer, but he can be a brilliant director, and the Portman/Reno combination was excellent, Portman so effective as a child with an adult mind, and Reno so effective as an adult with a child's mind. If you just ignore all the holes in the plot and play along with his fantasies, Monsieur Besson will deliver a good thrill ride. But the boy genius Besson is no boy any more. He's older than Atom Egoyan, and he's a decade older than Hollywood's wunderkind, P.T. Anderson. Both of those youngsters have eclipsed Besson in the past decade, even though he was the cock of the walk and enfant terrible ten years ago when he was barely thirty and Nikita was released.

Besson has never directed a script that he didn't write. I'd say it's time for Besson the great director to fire Besson the hack writer.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Ebert and Maltin gave it only two stars, Berardinelli gave three (although he called the film script "preposterous" and "not grounded in reality"). Pretty low for a movie that viewers rate as one of the best 100 ever made, eh? To reconcile the discrepancy, Berardinelli hit the nail on the head when he said that the film delivers what people want from an action film - a romantic world-view, tons of action, really evil bad guys, revenge, humor, and interesting characters performed by good actors. And after all, the movie does have four star performances and direction, but they waste it on a one star script.

The People Vote ...

  • US gross, $19 million


Miscellaneous ...

Besson's alleged first draft, in which the pedophilia was explicit. I don't know whether this is legit or a bit of fan fiction.

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Genre masterpiece, but obviously no crossover to people who don't like gratuitous violence and grown men sleeping with 12 year old girls.

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