A Frenchman

in New York

Praised for the supreme stylishness of Nikita. Subway and The Big Blue. LUC BESSON’s latest thriller, Le’mi. boldly tackles some cinematic taboos. He tells Alan Morrison how shooting a film in America doesn’t

necessarily stop it being French.

lick hitmen carrying out their slaughter with laid-back designer cool are ten-a-penny in the current crop of big screen anti-heroes. And while the violence bubble doesn’t look likely to burst for some time yet. Luc Besson’s Léon manages to stand out from the crowd. It’s not just that this marks the 35— year-old French writer-director’s first feature entirely in English or that in its stylish artistic sensibility. it is an indisputably French movie set in New York; where Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers are films. in essence. about violence. Léon dares to use violence only as one element in its backdrop. no more or less than thejagged skyscraper horizon. This film is about love. about friendship and dependence. about redemption.

The story follows the unexpected

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relationship that grows between Leon a European assassin. physically in his 30s. mentally in his teens. officially not in existence at all and Mathilda. a twelve-year-old girl whose family. neighbours to Leon. are murdered in a botched drugs raid by a gang of crooked cops. Reluctantly. Leon takes Mathilda into his care: he teaches her the essentials of his trade. she teaches him a little about the outside world. Together. they work out personal vendettas against police corruption. while simultaneously filling deeper voids in their lives.

Besson wrote the script specifically for Jean Reno. the actor who has appeared in all

his films apart from Atlantis.

In fact. Leon could be a close cousin of Victor the ‘cleaner’. played by Reno in Nikita.

the character of

whose acid bath solution helps Anne Parillaud out of a difficult situation. ‘If you compare with animals. in France we have a lot of birds. but not so many lions.’ says Besson of his star. ‘We have all these small, Frenchie. Parisian actors. and it’s difficult to find a guy. huge. big an actor. a big actor.’

The 46-year-old Reno is indeed a striking presence. off screen and on. an amiable giant who possesses a deep-throated chuckle the devil would kill for. As Victor. he was a perfectly enigmatic balance of professionalism and menace; in comparison, when the role was played by Harvey Keitel in John Badham’s Hollywood remake. The Assassin. it lost a lot of its impact by becoming little more than the obvious Harvey Keitel star cameo. (As an aside. it‘s worth noting that Keitel virtually reprised his ‘clcaner’ role as The Wolf in Pulp Fiction). Leon’s undefined nationality grows naturally from Reno’s own background: born in Casablanca to Spanish parents. he spent time stationed in Germany as a ranger in the French army. and now makes his home in both Paris and Los Angeles. Film fans will recognise him as the Italian diver in The Big Blue.

The first draft of the script was completed in twenty days, but even by then Besson had become so attached to it that he had to tell Reno the lead might no longer be his. ‘I came back to see him.’ explains the director. ‘and I said, “The good news is. I’ve found a great director. The bad news is . . . it’s not for you anymore, it’s for me.” The movie was now my responsibility, and I’m obliged to shoot with the best actor in the part. But he was the best. When the girl came into the story. it changed everything. At the beginning. it was just the story of the cleaner who killed everyone boom! boom! boom! That’s funny for five minutes. but not so interesting to me. I tried to think who could kill him. He’s so undetectable no papers. no phones. no credit cards. Who can catch him? Nobody. I felt that the flaw could only come from his absolute opposite: twelve years old, beautiful and innocent. a child. a girl. I liked this confrontation. Two people in the same society: someone who becomes indestructible faced with a character who is totally his opposite and who will be his downfall. his Achilles heel.’

With this basic outline in lace. Besson then thought about its setting. ‘Thc question was. which city could help the story? And New York was. for me. the most