Just two years after his feature debut, "Le Dernier Combat," a nearly dialogue-free black-and-white post-apocalyptic tale that brought Besson quite some success on the international festival circuit, he made "Subway," which, while it nodding to the spartan minimalist narrative of his first movie, is stylistically a much clearer signpost of where he'd be going in the future. Imbued with a punkish, kinetic aesthetic, from the hairdos to the synthy score (by frequent Besson collaborator Eric Serra, who also takes a small role), it's true that the things that made it feel so hip and edgy at the time are the very elements that date the film now. But there is undeniable filmmaking bravado at play here including Besson's ability to find a garish sort of glamor in the lives of his disenfranchised, largely subterranean heroes, and injecting a kind of manic energy into even this most illogical and incoherent of stories, something that endures through his movies to this day.
Christopher Lambert plays Fred, a handsome, bleached-blonde drifter type who, on the run from the henchmen of a gangster from whom he stole some documents, and from the police, takes refuge in the cavernous and mazelike Paris Metro, moving with ease and familiarity between its public and its forbidden spaces. Tracked down by the gangster's moll Helena (Isabelle Adjani, whose gorgeousness overcomes even the ruffliest of 80s frou-frou concoctions) whom Fred has already fallen for, the film then devolves into a series of chases and interludes as Fred's accomplices -- notably Jean-Hughes Anglade as a rollerskating pickpocket and Jean Reno as a drummer who refuses to be named -- themselves have run ins with the various pursuers, all while Fred is trying to marshal together a rock band out of the disparate collection of buskers who work the tunnels. Nodding directly to Godard's "Breathless," we can also certainly detect a kinship with the following year's "Mauvais Sang" from Leos Carax (not to mention his 1991 film "The Lovers on the Bridge") in the portrayal of a marginalised society driven literally underground and in the idea of star-crossed lovers rejecting a bourgeois life in favor of something freer and less encumbered. But let's not overstate Besson's impulses as a social commentator, whatever the political content, there is a certain irony present, a kind of winkiness that indicates Besson is not taking it all too seriously, and nor should we -- an element that foreshadows his later career in pure popcorn. Nonetheless, while hardly a classic, "Subway" was a calling card for something very exciting at the time: a fusing of the nihilist French tradition with a poppy, punky, trashy vibe. If every generation needs a new expression of rebellion, it felt, for a few years at least, like the young people of Mitterand's '80s France might have found it with "Subway," Besson and his ilk.
With a black-and-white, mostly silent post-apocalyptic war movie, a subterranean punk-rock odyssey and a languid, heavily fictionalized based-on-a-true-story diving movie ("The Big Blue") under his belt, Besson had become a director to watch: he was stylish, energetic and seemingly totally unafraid to change it up completely from one film to the next. He was happy to cross boundaries and mix genres, with his films fluctuating wildly between earnest melodrama and a kind of arch expressiveness. But it was "Nikita" in 1990 that really put Besson on the map: and it's probably still the film that best exemplifies a "Luc Besson movie" if there really is such a thing, foreshadowing all his guns'n'gals Hollywood films, and also the quasi-exploitational phase of his later producing career, while still retaining an independent's eye for character. In the first fifteen minutes of "Nikita," we see an economy of narrative that Besson has yet to recapture in any of his later films, as a young junkie (Anne Parillaud) murders a policeman in the botched robbery of a pharmacy, is sentenced to life in prison, "dies" while detained, and wakes up in a secret spy organization known as The Centre. Here she's reborn as an assassin, under the tutelage of Bob (Tcheky Karyo).
"Nikita" was Besson's first real taste of U.S. success and though it met with mixed reviews both at home in France and elsewhere, it did well at the box office internationally, in direct contrast to his last film, "The Big Blue" which, rescored and recut, with a "happier" ending for the U.S., tanked just a couple of years prior despite its massive success at home. "Nikita," however, was a wonderfully sellable mix of foreign, subtitled prestige pic and down-and-dirty genre action film; it was hyperstylized, in an almost Tony Scott way (you can understand why it was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's), but it did have a little more on its mind for those who wanted to look for it. Besson was clearly invested and interested in the emotional journey of the main character, and in the way that violence and femininity can coexist side by side (a thematic obsession that recurs regularly throughout his work). Perhaps more tellingly for Besson's future career, it has since shown its franchise-ability in inspiring an American remake (John Badham's decent "Point of No Return") and two popular television series, none of which, Besson claims, he received a red cent for. But more importantly, more than any of his films, it cemented Besson's particular talent as a writer/director who could mix popcorn entertainment with thornier thematic concerns and a singular point of view. How much he followed through on that promise, however, is a matter for debate.
If "Nikita" was the promise, then "Léon" was the delivery. Essentially, Besson took the Jean Reno character from "Nikita," a ruthless hitman who refers to himself as a "cleaner," and built an entire movie around him, giving an indelible role to his lucky charm actor as well as to the impossibly winsome Natalie Portman in the process. This cleaner lives and works in New York City, next door to a young girl, Mathilde (Natalie Portman) whom he reluctantly takes in after a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman) guns down her entire family. He then teaches her the only thing he knows: how to kill and how to exact retribution for her murdered family. Since the film was English-language and highly accessible, it served as Besson's breakthrough for those who hadn't bothered with the artier, or at least more subtitled “Nikita.” Despite some of Besson's signature quirks shining through, and the borderline inappropriate relationship between the assassin and the young girl (while there are a couple of moments in the movie that give you pause, their connection seems to be emotional more than romantic) in a lot of ways “Léon” (released as the more anonymous “The Professional” in the U.S.) represents the peak of Besson’s abilities as a filmmaker – it’s cleanly told, boldly stylized, violent, emotional and, at its core, features a powerful young woman coming to terms with that power. It epitomizes his love of foreign art films and Hollywood action movies, all in one beautifully concise package, and it might be the best Gary Oldman bad guy role ever (which is really saying something). Even if you don’t appreciate Besson’s larger body of work, it’s hard not to love “Léon,” and it is certainly his most complete and most satisfying film to date. The mooted Portman-starring sequel never got off the ground, with Besson protege Olivier Megaton directing the similarly themed Zoe Saldana-starring, Besson-co-scripted "Colombiana" in 2011 instead, to vastly diminished returns.