I finally sat down to watch the acclaimed action thriller “Léon: The Professional” recently for the first time in my life and within minutes regretted that it took me so long to fix this blind spot in my action education. The opening scene is a superb example of how to establish drama and excitement in your film, and how to hype your eponymous hero. As any good horror director knows, it’s usually what you don’t show that so effectively elicits fear in the characters or in the audience. Sure, the monster appearing in the mirror gets a cheap pop, but the heavy silence before that occurs is where the money’s at. If a horror film is merely a series of grotesque images or monster emergences, then it usually remains mired in mediocrity, but if it establishes a sense of genuine dread built on the mystery of what’s around the corner or, even better, what’s in somebody’s head, rather than what’s right in front of you, the film could become a classic.
Action films too often lack this visual restraint because we usually want kewl moments that make us scream out “that was pretty schweet!” And, of course, those moments are great and necessary for us to have a fun time. Many post-film Perkins dinners were and are full of rehashing the many creative ways that characters were dispatched, as well as the quips that followed such violence. But sometimes a director should leave voids the viewer should fill with their imagination.
Watch the first 32 seconds of this “Léon The Professional Kill Count” video. All of those deaths occur in the opening scene. As you can see, the kills are not only unique and entertaining, but are mostly done away from our gaze. Besides some feet dangling, we don’t see one single person dying, despite the fact that we know Léon just killed seven people. What we do see is the “I just shit my pants” reaction to Léon from the boss man. The omnipresent Léon and his skill with multiple weapons establish in a few short moments the credibility he needs to get us through the rest of the film. And the utter fear on the part of the boss man demonstrates that not only the audience recognizes Léon’s skills, but the man with the gun does too.
Emotions can be extremely dramatic, especially fear. You can read so much into somebody’s mind by seeing their face as they contemplate their or another’s doom. That’s why the beginning of “Léon” was so good. The film didn’t show the moment of death, but it showed the fear elicited in the remaining survivors building and building. That’s violence to build story, characters and emotion, not just to be kewl.