One of the most talked-about films of the mid -nineties, Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional walks a fine line between provocation and exploitation. Your mileage may vary on which side of that line it ultimately lands on, but the movie’s impact on popular culture is fairly undeniable.
Released in 1994, the film stars Jean Reno as a middle-aged hitman who takes on a young ward – played by a 12 year old Natalie Portman in her screen debut – after her family are murdered by crooked cops, led by Gary Oldman in one of the most memorable movie villain performances of his career.
Much of the enduring controversy around the film centres on Portman, whose character develops a romantic attachment to Leon that manifests in some very uncomfortable scenes. The adult never betrays any desire to reciprocate her advances, but Portman herself later admitted that she felt sexualised by the role.
If this aspect of the film does stand up to scrutiny at all – and spoiler alert, we think it does – it’s almost entirely down to the two central performances, which are filled with a charm and empathy that dials down the ick factor considerably. Reno is quietly soulful and believably conflicted in one of his first major English-language roles, while Portman manages to capture the pain and naïveté that makes her character more than just a gun-toting Lolita.
As is often the case, however, it’s Gary Oldman’s villain who very nearly walks away with the film. His high level scenery chewing was so memorable that he’s the only character who has their own Wikipedia page, despite his relatively minimal screen time. What other actor could make the word ‘everyone’ sound so deliciously demented?
In this week’s podcast, we break it all down – including our memories of being far too young to watch the film, Luc Besson’s subsequent career path, the stealth vegan propaganda the movie seems to sneak in and much more – plus drinking games, listener reactions and our fantasy sequel pitches.
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Next week, we’re honouring the long-awaited release of Tenet by heading back to the NCU (Nolan Cinematic Universe) for one of the director’s lesser-known releases. Until then, happy listening and remember – always water your houseplants.