Paul Lister’s review published on Letterboxd:
The idea of being a hitman has always been so alluring to me thanks to a few films - two of which are Besson films. Leon, Nikita and Grosse Pointe Blank all make me think I could get into this business! Ok, I sound disturbed, that's true enough but let's face it on the surface isn't just the coolest job title in the world? Even Matilda remarks at it being cool when Leon confesses to what he is. Let's also acknowledge though that hitman are fairly tragic figures, alone in the world, hiding from something or someone! I can be a tragic, lonely figure, well heck I'm already at least one of those things. Whether it was just the coolness of John Cusack in general, or him stabbing someone in the eye with a pen or the way in which Leon slowly unveils himself from the shadows to wrap a knife around a targets neck, I just wanted to be those guys. Throw in a bit of James Bond type globe trotting and my life would be pretty deadly (literally). But I guess this is why movies exist, because this shit just isn't real and I'm just a boring ginger bloke from Manchester, England.
Moving on to the film in question though and Leon is more than just a film about a hitman. Sure it has all the cool action we would expect from a Luc Besson film but what really makes it is the chemistry between it's stars, Jean Reno (Leon) and a very young Natalie (Mathilda) Portman...oh and don't forget a truly evil bad guy played by Gary Oldman (Stansfield), who is fucking sensational as always. The thing is about Gary Oldman is that when he plays bad guys on screen he just knows how to make them truly bad. Oldman's character is a crooked cop and then some, his introduction sets him up perfectly, the way in which his partner almost pleads with Mathilda's dad to tell the truth because Stansfield really doesn't like being disturbed whilst listening to his music. When he is finally disturbed it is clear from his partners reaction that this is not good and Oldman backs this up with an evil glare and numerous visible ticks that make him violently unpredictable. I could watch Oldman all day in this role and it's to the films massive credit that it is better for not featuring him too often and concentrating on the central relationship between Leon and Mathilda.
It is this relationship that makes the film so special. Leon is a lonely guy, clearly hurting from something long since in the past which has made him retreat from life as it were. His best friend is a plant because it doesn't offer the drama that human friendship does. He leads a closeted life but finds some exuberant joy in watch Gene Kelly at the pictures. Mathilda on the other hand is part of a family, well a family of sorts at least, she feels like laugh is treating her hard but enjoys her meetings with Leon in the hallway of their apartment building - they are neighbours.
When Stansfield kills her family, Mathilda is just returning from the grocers, staying relatively calm she walks on past her apartment in the hope that Leon will take her in before anyone notices anything suspicious about her. Leon, looking through the keyhole the whole time is hesitant in opening the door though, he doesn't want to let someone new into his laugh. He knows though, that she is as good as dead if he doesn't though so he reluctantly opens the door.
Mathilda quickly learns of Leon's profession and once she is taken in and detecting that Leon cannot read or write she uses this as a bargaining tool to get Leon to teach her to be a cleaner. This is where it gets really good because we see them depend on each other and bring each other closer to the world of the living, there sure is a lot of awkward sexual tension going on though, usually ending in Leon spitting out his milk in embarrassment, which is always a laugh. The directors cut takes this development of their relationship even further as we see Mathilda actually go on proper jobs with Leon, we also learn the ring trick which is a bit of foreshadowing for later in the film. There are some curious moments in the bonding between these two characters, especially the part where they dress up as movie stars. It's a bit goofy but Mathilda is a young girl though, even if she's tougher than most.
As the film approaches it's final third it brings back into focus Stansfield and Mathilda's want for revenge. Leon cares so much for her by this point that he actually goes against everything he believes and acts out revenge on her part, killing one of Stansfield's men. Not that Mathilda knew this though, she foolishly goes to take out Stansfield on her own, only to get caught short as it were. She gets lucky that Leon's actions get in the way.
Sure enough though the web is closing in on the pair and Stansfield is super pissed! He literally brings "EVERYONE" in one of the films best moment! Not really sure how he convinced everyone to come but sure enough there they are, an entire army or cops v Leon! It can only end badly for him but not before blasting his way through a hell of a lot of cops and declaring his love for Mathilda before saving her - and the plant, he still loves plant. It's the moment we had been waiting for and it's so sweet and heartbreaking because we all know, including Mathilda that he is not getting out alive, "You're not going to lose me. You've given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots. And you'll never be alone again, Mathilda." it's a perfect way to end it, if a little bittersweet. It's even more bittersweet when Leon almost makes it out alive, dressed as one of the SWAT team but his final act is one that damn well makes me smile.
Again everything is down to the chemistry of the films two leads. Natalie Portman was an absolute sensation in this film, tough beyond her years that often betraying the fact that she knows very little of the world she lives in. The way in which she breaks down at Leon's door, desperately trying to keep it together was devastating as was her goodbyes to Leon, so emotional and remarkably mature for a performer of her age. She gives one of the best child actor performances I have seen and it is no surprise that she has gone on to be the success she is, although I do often have to pinch myself that the Portman today, was that little girl from this movie! It goes without saying that Reno carries off his hitman duties with the smoothest of hitman moves, the glasses, the hat, his jacket, he's one cool character. But he really does carry off the lonely nature of Leon very well, his eyes and his expressions tell it all.
Besson handles it all really well, he isn't someone I would ever expect to have me emotionally engaged in one of his films and in that regards I think this is why Leon stands above anything he has done before or since, although Nikita comes close. He's backed up by a top score by Eric Serra, a frequent Besson collaborator. The film does feature many leaps of faith and logic though, a lot of it is highly unbelievable but if you are invested in the central relationship and enjoy Besson's stylish action scenes you may, like me, let them slide.
When Leon ends I always feel like I've been on an emotional journey or two lost souls finding each other and making each other want to live and be happy in life. It just happens to be about a hitman at the same time. I still want to be a hitman, I would rather have a strong and unique bond with someone who makes me feel alive they way Mathilda makes Leon feel alive, although preferably someone closer to my age, I don't want to be spitting my milk out all the time like Leon!