Girls & Guns
By Hugh Lilly
“All you need for a movie,” Jean-Luc Godard once famously said, “is a girl, and a gun.” The director Luc Besson took that quote to heart in every film he made at the height of his career.
In 1985, Besson made Subway, his second feature. It tells the story of a gang of subway-dwelling miscreants who help keep Fred, a safe-cracker—a peroxide-blonde Christopher Lambert (Highlander, Claire Denis’ White Material)—out of the reach of the long arm of the law. The fuzz are on his tail because he stole a set of important documents from an influential businessman, whose wife follows Fred down to the Métro one night, where the two eventually fall for one another.
It’s an original script—to a point—but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. The film ultimately sits as a mid-way point between the innovation of Besson’s début (Le Dernier Combat) three years earlier, and the deliberately excessive stylistic inventiveness of Le Grand Bleu in 1987—and everything else that would follow after it. Subway is ultimately a trivial, throwaway exercise in visual craft, and sees the director flexing his stylistic muscle and attempting to articulate what he saw as a then-new kind of artistic action film. Subway is really only interesting as a stepping stone between Besson’s first attempt and impending proficient streak—otherwise it’s nothing more than bubble-gum cinema of the most disposable, most easily forgotten variety, destined to age quickly and noticeably.
La Femme Nikita, Besson’s seminal 1990 film, has weathered the years much better. The story—about a girl in her late teens who, instead of going to jail for shooting a cop, opts to be trained by the police and winds up a James Bond-like heroine—arguably inspired at least three films, including one by Besson himself. The first remake was a Hong Kong film called Black Cat that appeared the following year; the second, an American film called The Assassin in 1993. The film has been adapted into two American TV series: one in the late ’90s, which yielded five full seasons, and one—simply titled Nikita—which began in the US a few weeks ago, and stars the Asian chick from Mission Impossible: III.
The original film is a veritable master class in directing action, and it overflows with style—although Kathryn Bigelow’s solid 1989 cop thriller Blue Steel remains a better example of continually taut, female-driven action. Whereas the music composed by Besson’s regular maestro Eric Serra for Le Grand Bleu has aged that film badly, the score to Nikita helps ground the film squarely in the ’80s, adding to the heady neon-filled atmosphere created by the lighting and cinematography. Serra’s clunky, ambient metallic score would do something similar for Martin Campbell’s James Bond film GoldenEye in 1995.
Behind bars, Nikita is instructed in martial arts and all manner of hand-to-hand combat and gun(wo)manship, before being unleashed on unsuspecting baddies. Near the end of the film, Besson favourite Jean Reno shows up in the role of a hit-man. Nicknamed “the cleaner,” he would later inspire Besson to write and direct a film based almost entirely on him: Léon, the Professional. That film, made in 1994—after the director had returned to the sea to embark on an ultimately abortive project called Atlantis—remains Besson’s masterwork: thrilling for its entire two hour run-time, wildly inventive in both plot and narrative, and showcasing some of Jean Reno’s best-ever work. Serra’s music at this point in his career became much more orchestral; some of the lush, waltz-like motifs he composed for Léon were picked up on and incorporated into Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 by those films’ composers, Shigeru Umebayashi and Michael Galasso.
Léon is a solitary man, a samurai-like gun-for-hire who lives an austere life void of almost any emotion—except the tenderness he bestows upon a potted plant, seemingly his sole material possession of any real value. That all changes when he reluctantly saves the life of Mathilda, a rebellious young girl whose family has just been executed in the apartment down the hall by a corrupt cop (played by Gary Oldman) after a drug deal goes completely haywire. After a lot of nagging, and explaining that she has no other family and nowhere else to go, Léon agrees to teach her the ropes—with the added bonus that she will be able to seek revenge on those who cruelly gunned down her sister, mother, father and four-year-old brother in cold blood.
One of the film’s greatest strengths—aside from the brilliant performance from Reno in the title role—is the intentionally (and slightly unnerving) Lolita-esque turn by a young actress in the role of Mathilda. An only child born just 12 years earlier in Jerusalem, the role given to her by Besson would propel her onto the world stage where she would eventually receive critical acclaim in spades, as well as her fair share of media attention. Her life would be forever changed by the music of The Shins, and, in 2004, she would be nominated for an Oscar for a role as a stripper in Closer, for which she wore a gaudy pink wig. Her performance in Léon remains of her very best. Her name? Natalie Portman.
Though she was originally turned down for the role—she was apparently considered too young—Besson and his producers were right to cast her, as hers is one of the best screen débuts by a virtually-unknown young actress in many decades. The film certainly has its faults—Oldman’s character is drawn too crudely, too over-the-top, and 133-minute run-time eventually works against the film in its third act—but its influence on other films has been positive and notable. (See, for example, the Wachowskis’ Bound and even certain elements of The Matrix.) Along with Speed and Die Hard 2, Léon is one of the best action movies of the ’90s—and it’s still Besson’s most endlessly re-watchable film.
All three films are out now on Blu-Ray disc with high-quality picture and sound—and in the case of Léon, 5.1 DTS. The picture on Nikita—particularly in the opening sequence—is almost better than the other two combined; Léon, though it looks like it’s been remastered, contains occasional grainy patches, and Subway suffers from an obviously degraded original negative.