The Antagonists of LÉON: An Analysis
Few films make for as good an analysis of an antagonist as Léon: The Professional, also known as Léon. Many consider the film to be a cult classic, primarily because of how dark, gritty, and unique it is. It’s a great film and one that deserves all the recognition it’s gotten over the years.
If you don’t know, Léon is a 1994 English-language action-thriller written and directed by Luc Besson. The film stars Jean Reno and Gary Oldman and features the film debut of Natalie Portman. The plot centers on Léon (Reno), a professional hitman who takes in 12-year-old Mathilda Lando (Portman) after her family is murdered by corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Oldman).
The two form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the hitman's trade. Nevertheless, let’s discuss the antagonists of the film and the relationship of the film with life-altering events and coping with change. There’s a lot you can discuss with the film, and this is a small piece of the puzzle to highlight.
Still from 'Léon'. Photo credit: IMDb
The obvious antagonist of Léon is Norma Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Stansfield is a corrupt DEA agent and drug lord who Mathilda has a vendetta against since he murdered her family. Stansfield forced Mathilda’s father to sell run drugs from him, and Mathilda’s internalized conflict against Stansfield is clear and obvious.
Who wouldn’t want revenge on the man who made them an orphan? We’re introduced to the character when he interrogates Mathilda’s father over cocaine. Although Stansfield appears one way, we get a sense that he’s not an honest or trustworthy character once he returns with an entire gang to attack the family.
This instance, specifically the death of Mathilda’s brother, is the clear spark that causes Mathilda to look for Léon for guidance and skills so she can take revenge on Stansfield. Conflict comes arises throughout, as you can expect with a story like this and Stansfield isn’t a character we’d feel sorry for.
A good example comes from Stansfield’s disturbing brand of interrogation against Mathilda. Stansfield can’t help himself from taking matters into his own hand after Léon takes out Stansfield’s lieutenant Malky. Eventually, we know what happens to Stansfield, and the ending couldn’t be more satisfying or bittersweet.
Stansfield is an example of a dense antagonist, someone who is more than being bad for the sake of being evil. For example, in times of stress, his behavior gets more and more deranged. The best case comes when he kills Mathilda’s father, unloading his clip in the back, intending to reload and reshoot the corpse.
From a deeper analysis, Stansfield is a nihilist and a villain. He shows little self-respect or concern for anyone’s safety, especially his own. He’s the type to causally wander into his gang’s field of fire without worry. As great as Gary Oldman is, none of it is possible without the excellent writing to back the character up.
Part of what makes Stansfield such a great antagonist is the sheer amount of symbolism that’s sprinkled throughout the film. Though not related to Stansfield, a great example is Leon’s favorite plant. Leon and Mathilda acknowledge how the plant is like Leon because it doesn’t have any roots.
Greater symbolism comes when Mathilda plants it in a field, hinting that its growing roots illustrate Leon’s newfound attachment to another person. Much of the lost childhood that connects and drives revenge of Mathilda against Stansfield relates to her violin case that carries Leon’s weapons.
From a broad perspective, much of Leon hinges on the idea of life-altering events. Would Mathilda be where she is if her family wasn’t massacred? What about Stansfield? Is he how he is because of his past? Same with Leon? I suppose it dives deeper into the nature versus nurture question and what it means.
There’s plenty to highlight and discuss in the matter, especially considering the film has so many scenes that could fall under that umbrella. No matter how you view it, Leon is powerful for how it takes a disturbing story and elevates it to a degree within a revenge world that few films have done before it.
Coping with Change
As obvious as it may seem, Leon is about coping with change. From the antagonist's lens, Stansfield is a character who hates change. As ridiculous and nihilistic as the character is, Stansfield can’t handle anything around him going wrong at least it’s his doing. That notion also follows through with our main characters, Leon and Mathilda.
There’s a lot to discuss with a film like this, and if there’s one thing you can take away, it’s how you can writer a killer antagonist. As easy as it is to hate the character for how he acts, there’s a level of acting and writing that makes it so entertaining and intriguing. There’s a reason the film is as popular as it is.