Luc Besson follows Nikita and The Big Blue with another of his outrageously plotted, highly improbable but throughly enjoyable tales, this time focusing on a milk-drinking, plant-tending, Gene Kelly-loving Sicillian hitman in New York who adopts a young orphan after her family is murdered.
Besson regular Jean Reno stars as the eponymous assassin whose ruthless efficiency will have you on tenterhooks for the first five minutes. Thereafter, the film changes tack and goes not for the jugular, but the heartstrings.
When the family of his 12-year-old neighbour Mathilda (Portman) is killed by a shadowy bunch of characters led by a hammy Oldman, Leon finds himself as her surrogate father, teaching his young, precocious charge - at her insistence, mind you - how to load an automatic weapon or shoot politicans jogging in Central Park using a rifle with a telescopic sight, transforming her into a pre-pubescent version of Nikita. She, in return, teaches him to read and write and open up as a human being.
Driven by another electrifying score from Eric Serra, this features an astonishingly histrionic performance from Oldman, chomping drugs at every turn, and a touchingly affecting relationship between the stoic Reno and the quite extraordinary Louise Brooks-coiffured Portman in her first movie.
Despite its US setting, English dialogue and the presence of actors such as Gary Oldman and Danny Aiello, this is a fully fledged French arthouse film through and through, packed with incredible visuals, and featuring Besson's typical disregard for plot logic. There may well be something morally dubious about the idea of training a young girl in the ways of an assassin, but Besson manages to pull it all off with his typical flair and visual aplomb, instilling his narrative with an emotional centre hitherto lacking in his previous work. It's preposterous to be sure, but that's an essential part of its quality.