Steve Grzesiak’s review:
For a short while, back in the early 90s, I think Léon was my favourite film of all time. I still think it's really rather splendid, too.
As I've mentioned before about some films that I love, there are some where you can well imagine why they might get on the tits of some people. Léon is definitely one of those films. It is an absolutely bonkers and sometimes completely unbelievable action and crime thriller with a central relationship that nudges unnervingly towards the disturbing for most of its second half, and containing a performance from Gary Oldman that is so unpredictably unhinged that you could easily genuinely worry for the safety of Natalie Portman during their showdown in the police station.
In my mind, though, its strengths are easily able to overcome the definite weaknesses that even I could spot as an admirer of the film. Jean Reno plays a loner hitman operating under the mysterious Danny Aiello whose only pleasure in life is the odd glass of milk and a trip to the pictures. When almost all of the family next door are gunned down by crooked cop Oldman and his underlings, he takes sole survivor Portman under his wing and sets about taking out Oldman et al.
It's often said that Luc Besson's films are completely dominated by style and on the whole I don't think that is an incorrect criticism at all. But Léon is a bit different - stylish it most certainly is, but he seems to sacrifice a lot of that for pure emotion, a couple of scintillating shoot-outs, one or two thrilling showdowns, and THAT relationship between Reno and Portman.
A lot has been said and written about it, but for me it is actually one of the least interesting parts of the film, especially when it showcases the scenes where Reno trains Portman how to be a 'cleaner' and sees him playing a cringeworthy guessing game with her. Much more interesting is how they operate on their own and interact with Aiello and Oldman especially. Separately they are fascinating characters that are well performed.
I've never been completely sold on Reno as an actor but he is mostly very good here, while Portman shows the immense promise that she has more or less fulfilled by now, underplaying her role extremely well during some of the film's key moments. Aiello has always been an actor I've enjoyed and he is nicely understated here. Oldman, meanwhile, is absolutely riveting.
I think it would be easy to criticise his performance here as over-the-top and even slightly pantomimic in nature. But Willi One Blood, Don Creech, Keith Glascoe and Randolph Scott, all practically no name actors before and after this film, are vital to the quality of Oldman's performance as his henchmen. If they had acted as if completely unaware of his insanity, drug binging and violence, then it would have layered on to it a layer of ridiculousness that the film might have struggled to contain. But as they shake their heads through some of his actions, it pulls the film away from being too loopy. He is the only one here unaware of the chaos going on around him.
There is just something so extraordinarily carefree about Léon that makes it so admirable in so many ways, and it's easy to see why in so many quarters it is so adored. It's as close to absolutely brilliant as a fairly regularly problematic film might ever get.