1994 would have Jean Reno return again this time as the lead role in Besson’s action thriller Leon. Here he plays a solitary hitman in little Italy who works for the mob, dispatching targets for a fee in what he refers to as cleaning. Its not until he crosses paths with a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda (played by a young Natalie Portman in her first feature length role) that things start to change for both of them. Thanks to a series of events that make her home life completely unstable, Leon has a change of heart and decides to care for her. This killer with a heart scenario adds a level of depth to the characters as the unlikely pair become an odd partnership, tackling the problems thrown at them by the world together in their own introverted ways. This once again shows Besson’s taste for people sidelined by society and also for strong females, as Mathilda begins to become an apprentice in the art of killing thanks to her new friendship.
A few years later Besson’s even bigger break came in the form of science fiction blockbuster The Fifth Element. The script that would be adapted into this film had been worked over by Besson for years at this point, and although it took over twenty years to come to fruition, its final arrival was far from underwhelming. In 1997 this grand tale based on Besson’s love for Moebius comics in his younger days wowed audiences as they were invited to come inside the huge world that had been created. With accomplished action hero Bruce Willis in the lead role of Korben Dalls, the enigmatic and tantalising Milla Jovovich as the unforgettable Leeloo and Gary Oldman (now good friend and collaborator with Besson) as the spiteful villain, the cast alone was enough to entice people in. The story showed Korben and Leelo forced to cross paths (a classic Besson trait by now) in a violent flying taxi car accident. Understanding that she was not human and getting tied up in the intergalactic issues that had currently been heightened by an attack on a spacecraft, the immense bustling environment suddenly focuses in on a smaller set of characters as they search for the mystical fifth element.
Set in the 23rd century this futuristic cyberpunk story shows audiences what Besson can do with a bigger budget, as much of the films ninety-million dollars would go to production costs a lot of which would be special effects, of which there were many in a time when computer generated imaging was still emerging. This bold leap did pay off however as it almost tripled its cost in box office sales. This release showed a fantastic change of pace for Besson, who’s portfolio so far mainly stuck to fairly gritty real-life scenarios. The action that he usually undertook was based on realism and his locations most times authentic, here he managed to successfully wade into waters he hadn’t yet and take his now well-oiled sense of action, pace and of course visuals to a new level.