Well this is one of the stranger movies I've ever seen...
Now usually, when you read a statement like that, you expect a film with, say, a lot of hallucinations, trippy cinematography, or just plain peculiar activity. By contrast, what makes Léon so strange is its shockingly seamless blend of genres. It takes a serious hitman/action thriller and mixes it with a snarky, comedic, father-daughter/pseudo-romantic relationship. Yes, that sounds insane. Yes, it works brilliantly.
Misanthropic Badass meets Precocious Pre-Teen
Léon (Jean Reno) is a quiet and secretive assassin who watches from his room as a group of extortionists arrive to butcher the family of a man who didn't pay his dues on time. They kill all but one: Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the 12 year old daughter who was out buying milk at the time. When she returns to the scene of the slaughter (where the extortionists still are), she is smart enough to hide her horror and march straight up to knock on Léon's door. If he doesn't answer and stays out of it, the extortionists will recognize something is wrong and kill her. If he does, he risks getting involved in a nasty conflict and must take responsibility for a girl he barely even knows. Given that he is a hitman, babysitting is understandably not something that he wants. But, naturally, he sympathizes enough to take her in, which kicks off one of the strangest and hilarious relationships I've ever seen in a movie.
Léon is a simple man. He works out every day. He waters his plant and sets it out in the sun. He watches the occasional Gene Kelley musical and falls asleep in his chair every night under a distinctive pair of shades. He applies himself wholly to his art of assassination (“cleaning”, as he calls it) and, as a result, is very anti-social. His disconnect from society is so complete that he doesn't even know how to read. This is a man who is destined to spaz out when forced to live with a 12-year old girl. Especially one like Mathilda.
Mathilda, by contrast, is a mixture of wannabe no-nonsense bad girl and giddy fun-loving tyke. She manages to convince Léon to take her in by sheer audacity, demanding that he teach her to be an assassin like him. She takes his gun and shoots it casually out the window like it's nothing, to Léon's blank astonishment. Her subsequent training with Léon is as hilarious as it is practical and awesome. Part of what makes all of it so hilarious is how nonchalantly they do it; there's something to be said about how amusing it is to watch an introverted stone-cold killer teach an enthusiastic twelve-year old how to murder people.
Aside from the quirky feel of the movie, what really makes it spectacular is the acting. Jean Reno turns Léon into someone who you grow fond of very quickly. His horrified and shocked reactions to Mathilda's shenanigans are so epic that he just make you want to go, “Aww...” every time the child surprises him with something new. He manages to look so out of his element with the girl that it becomes quite endearing. And, on top of this, he manages to switch into ice cold killer mode without losing stride. The ability to make these two very different personas work together seamlessly is truly a treat to watch.
Despite all of that praise, his character doesn't hold a candle to Natalie Portman's Mathilda. This was her first role in a movie, and she manages to inhabit the character with such depth that I still don't know quite what to make of her. Sure, she's assisted by an effective script, but she manages to, at times, make the character street-smart beyond her years while simultaneously the vulnerability and naivete one would logically expect from a girl her age. What was especially powerful (and near downright disturbing) was her infatuation with Léon that grows throughout the movie, to the point where she declares love for him and asks him for sex. One definitely empathizes with Léon as he freaks the hell out, unsure what to do aside from let his jaw hit the floor and sputter weakly. It is only in a movie like this that they could approach such a taboo subject, and it is done here in a way that creates far more laughter than it does intense nausea.
Last but not least, we have Gary Oldman as the villain, Stansfield, the most insane corrupt cop you will ever see. It is just mind boggling how, even though the powerful relationship of Léon and Mathilda could carry the movie by itself, there is still room for one of the most funny, creepy, and unusual antagonists in film history. It's like they handed the script to Gary Oldman and then challenged him to come up with the most over-the-top and yet sinister performances he could think of. And it works brilliantly. He races around like a kid on a sugar high, he skulks around like a footpad, and snarls and snarks around so often that sometimes you can almost see the other actors struggling not to laugh as they have no idea what to do with him. The movie is worth seeing for Oldman alone, and he isn't even the main focus of the story!
In the end, I found it very easy to see why Léon is such a classic. I'd heard so much about how great it was and, watching it for the first time, it became immediately apparent within minutes. So long as you are okay with the moments where it goes serious and brutal, this comes highly recommended. I really have almost nothing for it but praise. The only 'complaint' I have is that Natalie Portman's insinuations that Jean Reno should romance her freaked me out as much as it did his character. I wonder what Portman would think if she watched the movie again now?