“I take no pleasure in taking a life … if it’s from a person who doesn’t care about it.” — Norman Stansfield, Leon
There are plenty of “Best Villains of All Time” lists floating about, and, damn it, if good ol’ Norman S. isn’t near the top in a bunch of them.
There’s a reason for that.
When we’re first introduced to Gary Oldman’s unhinged DEA agent during the first act of Luc Besson’s Leon*, we are in the hallway of an apartment building where a casual interrogation is taking place. Stansfield has his back to us, and the sound of rambunctious classical music wafts out from the earbuds he’s wearing. All we can tell about him first off is that the guy is wearing a nice suit and obviously appreciates the finer points of musical culture.
Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Malky, asks some piggish lout of a guy they’ve dragged out of his apartment about the drugs they’d left him with and why the drugs in question had been returned to them a bit less pure than when they were initially handed over. The slob feigns ignorance to anything out of the ordinary, and it becomes immediately apparent that Malky doesn’t want to interrupt Stansfield while he’s listening to his music. Malky warns the guy that Stansfield has a talent for sniffing out a lie. The guy again denies any wrongdoing, prompting Malky to walk over to Stansfield. He’s practically sweating as Stansfield removes his earbuds and asks what the problem is, his back still to us. Malky tells him that the slob doesn’t know anything about any missing drugs and Stansfield responds with a curt, “Oh,” and turns around.
It’s a rare thing in cinema when you have a bad guy show you his cards right at the beginning of the game. Usually, you don’t know just how bad they are until a little later on in the film, when they do something despicable that warrants them the title of villain. The moment Stansfield turns around and fixes us with his gaze, you immediately understand why Malky didn’t want to distract the man from his music. There’s a slight trembling underneath Agent Stansfield’s skin, almost as if he were a live wire hiding underneath a layer of flesh and clothes. Behind the cold, calculating stare that we are at the other end of, there’s simply no trace of humanity or compassion.
You’ve just come face to face with one truly evil motherfucker.
There’s a look of genuine, outright terror on the poor guy’s face as Stansfield approaches him and casually begins to sniff him. According to the trivia section for the film on IMDB, actor Michael Badalucco was deeply intimidated by Oldman and had no idea that he was actually going to start sniffing him while they were filming the scene. That’s just a taste of the level of unpredictability you get with Agent Stansfield.
Throughout the course of the film, you observe as Oldman chews up the scenery in what can arguably be considered an over-the-top performance. This is by no means an insult as it’s this very same performance that most likely comes to mind for most people when the film is brought up in conversation. Stansfield is best compared to a wacked-out cartoon character, a tornado of force mixed with weird tics and threats delivered with a toothy grin. A man on the edge of the abyss, he’s an avid abuser of pills — what kind? nobody knows — that seem to prepare him for whatever atrocity he has lined up for the day. It doesn’t seem like there’s much he wouldn’t do to make his point, even if it involves pointing his gun at a child.
He is truly a frightening individual with seemingly infinite manpower and resources to call upon that make him a deadly opponent for our protagonists. One can’t be sure exactly how much of himself Oldman brought to the character, but during his epic delivery of the classic line, “Bring me everyone …” you have to ask yourself afterward if you’d ever want to ask Oldman to repeat himself during a regular conversation. And seriously, who else starts dissecting the music of Beethoven and Brahms after shotgunning an innocent family in an apartment?
There are plenty of moments in Leon that deserve mention here but it really isn’t necessary to tick off every single thing. Even the smaller details in the things he does deserve some sort of nod. For example, after emptying his gun into the back of the guy mentioned earlier who ripped him off, Stansfield stands over his body and dumps his shells, preparing to load up a fresh new batch before Malky stops him. And this act of overkill isn’t really about the drugs. It’s more about Stansfield getting his suit ruined when he took a shot to the arm as the guy tried to flee.
Oldman has blessed us with more than a handful of masterful performances during his career, and with DEA Agent Norman Stansfield, he created a villain that will likely be remembered for decades to come. Leon is a great film, and a large part of that is due to Stansfield, a man who just so happens to like those … calm little moments before the storm.
*As you most likely already know, Leon was excised by about a half hour from its original French release and retitled The Professional for its U.S. release. To avoid confusion, the film will be referenced to solely by its original title.