Milking the violence for all it's worth

Leon (18) Dir: Luc Besson I Like It Like That (15) Dir: Darnell Martin Trapped in Paradise (PG) Dir: George Gallo Straw Dogs (18) Dir: Sam Peckinpah

For his American debut, Luc Besson has pulled off an astonishing stunt: he has managed to make a thriller even slicker, sillier and more vacuous than Nikita. Set in New York - an opening helicopter track across Central Park lake is its most exhilarating moment - Leon is the tale of a reclusive hit-man with a heart of mush (Jean Reno) who finds himself in charge of a 12-year-old waif called Mathilda (Natalie Portman), suddenly orphaned when a crooked, indeed psychopathic, drug squad man (Gary Oldman) massacres her dealer father and the rest of her unlovely family. The film is at pains to play down any whiff of paedophilia, partly by underlining Leon's asceticism (he only drinks milk; sinister), partly by the old device of deliberately mentioning the topic that mustn't be mentioned: Mathilde make a spiteful joke about their unnatural relationship which gets the couple expelled from a hotel. Seldom averse to facile paradox, Besson is keen to make Leon the killing machine seem not just a decent chap but, as Mathilde gushes, "the most wonderful guy I've ever met" - an avenging angel stalking the unrighteous, and a role model for single fathers everywhere.

This is, as one would expect, wholly unconvincing, and Besson's techniques for endowing his thug with a spiritual life, which include a pot plant and Eric Serra's sleeve-tugging score, are an embarrassment. Leon comes closest to fun when Besson ditches his loftier aspirations and is content to show off how glossily brutal he can be. Reno, a gawky melancholic with a deep, resonant post-synced voice, is a reasonably arresting presence, there are several flashy shoot-outs (each one art-directed to within an inch of its life), and Gary Oldman turns in his least inhibited performance to date. His character has the B-movie habit of popping pills just before he slays: Oldman squirms and grimaces so alarmingly as the drugs take hold that you expect him to sprout fur and howl.

I Like It Like That may mark a double debut: it's the first feature by Darnell Martin, and is billed as the first major studio film directed by a black woman (how about A Dry White Season?) Chances are it won't be Martin's last. From its wittily choreographed opening shot onwards, the film crackles with unforced comedy and invention. Its freshness is all the more surprising when you consider that the movie is largely built from cliches: it's about a young mother from the Bronx (Lauren Velez), who hustles her way into a plum job and various amorous complications after her callow husband is thrown in prison. This is the stuff of a thousand feelgood romances, but spiked with just the right amount of realism - enough to cut the sugariness, not too much topoop the party.

Another debut, George Gallo's Trapped in Paradise, suffers unfairly from tardy release: it's a Christmas movie which has arrived either a bit late or ridiculously early. Such unhappy timing wouldn't matter much if the film were wholly negligible, but forits first 40-odd minutes there are plenty of comic treats, chief among them Nicolas Cage's hang-dog face and barely contained hysteria as an honest older son whose ex-jailbird brothers (Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey) bamboozle him into taking part in a raid on the town bank of Paradise, Pennsylvania, a place so sweet it makes Bedford Falls look like Beirut. But it's the night before Christmas, and the robber brothers, brimming with seasonal goodwill, soon repent. Unfortunately, so does Gallo, so that all the sharp timing and sadistic wit drains away, leaving only a few barbs sticking up from the residual slush.

The recent censorship tussles about Natural Born Killers have prompted the BFI to re-release a film which caused a fuss two decades ago: Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), the Cornish Tourist Board's worst nightmare. After so many oceans of blood have poured across the screens, the film's brutal finale now seems relatively moderate, though still uncomfortably exciting. But something stranger has happened to Peckinpah's insinuation that only by slaughtering a few rustics can the cuckolded young academic David (Dustin Hoffman) become a Real Man. It was this thesis, even more than the scene in which Susan George's character is raped and seems to enjoy it, which helped made the film notorious. "Fascism" was muttered in some quarters.

Nowadays, though, Peckinpah's moral seems not so much Fascist as barmy. There's a revealing anecdote which tells how the director once put a snake and a mongoose into a cage, and asked "Who do you think will win?" "You will, Sam", said a shrewd friend. Precisely: the drama of Straw Dogs is a rigged match, an ethical cheat which allows no avenue for masculine courage save murder. And yet the film doesn't feel cynical, as it might in the hands of a less driven, more pandering director; it's Peckinpah's sheer unreasonableness that lends the film its lasting power to disturb. Incidentally, film nerds have long known that the cryptic title Straw Dogs is an allusion to the Tao Te Ching; the exact nature of Peckinpah's interest in Taoism remains cloudy.

n On release from Friday

Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate