Every actor and actress at some point in their career plays a role that has a different shape from their usual parts. It challenges them, makes develop a different on-camera dynamic, and in that development there is a transformation of sorts. In the case of Gary Oldman, that transformation came when he took on a character that had to go into a place of anger and pure psychotic mania. The Cinema Sunday dial is set to travel back to 1994, the year that saw the passing of Kurt Cobain, Nelson Mandela elected as the first black president of South Africa, and the New York Rangers winning the Stanley Cup, breaking a 54-year losing streak of chances for the Cup. And in September of 1994, Léon: The Professional opened in theaters and with it, Gary Oldman’s first true shot of villainy saw the light.
Directed by Frenchman Luc Besson, Léon: The Professional deviated from his previous works, because while it was a story rife with action and violence, there is sentiment there too. But with Gary Oldman and his playing the role of Norman Stansfield, there is where Luc let a beast out to play. Luc has Gary take it all the way, with Norman having a pure streak of evil within in him and no qualms about taking civilians while dealing out death as a corrupt agent of the DEA.
Luc gave Gary the direction needed to bring Norman to life, Gary gave Norman his darkness that has made him so memorable as a movie villain. He is amoral, having zero empathy for human life, and also seeks to further his own agenda through abusing his power as a DEA agent. One of the greatest moments of that power abuse is when he discovers the identity of the hit-man wanting him dead (Leon) and orders the mobilizing of SWAT and police in order to put him down, just to save his own skin. In the end, all the officers at his disposal and all the firepower cannot save him from finally getting his due justice as befitting someone of his villainy.
A movie like Léon: The Professional is not the sort of picture you think would be hailed and well-loved by critics and audiences alike. Yet at the time of its release in 1994, it took in over $45 million worldwide against a $16 million budget. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin wrote of Oldman’s performance:
Mathilda’s life becomes hard when her entire sleazy family is rubbed out by Gary Stansfield (Gary Oldman), a fantastically corrupt drug-enforcement agent who says things like “Death is whimsical today.” In this preposterous role, Mr. Oldman expresses most of the film’s sadism as well as many of its misguidedly poetic sentiments. During the buildup to an ugly shootout, he even claims that the calm before the storm reminds him of Beethoven, a thought that may help viewers get through the nastiness that follows.
March’s end is nearly here, the days are getting longer again, which means spring is nigh. And while many will take advantage to be outside in spite of the chill, those who wish solitude and quiet may wish to sit back and enjoy this glorious and violent piece of cinema and Gary Oldman’s clever, but insane, work as Norman Stansfield.