Jean Reno: The Bulletproof Star

In a long career that’s seen him starring in films good, bad and spectacularly terrible, the public’s affection for French icon Jean Reno has never wavered. How does he do it?

Big guy. Woolly hat. Stubble. Shades. Round shades. Dark round shades. Doesn’t say much. Kills people. Sensitively. Ask a roomful of people to come up with a word or two about Jean Reno and that’s pretty much what you’d get.

You might also get French. Likes his dinner. And cool. Very cool. But what about versatile? Best known for playing loners, hitmen, tough guys, individuals who don’t say much because they don’t have to, to most people Reno is that French guy in that hitman film. Léon, or Nikita or whatever it was.

Which of course is true, Reno was that guy and those were the films. But there’s more to Reno than just a guy with a gun.

Take The Philosopher. The short about a guy who’s got it all who one day decides to give it all away. No shades. No hat. A bit of stubble, granted, but he’s just a normal guy who just kind of snaps one day and decides “that’s it, I want a simple life. It’s all gotta go.“

And off, indeed, it does all go. The Reno trick, though, is that as the stuff goes so do we. With him. To wherever he’s going.

He pulls off the same trick in 2010’s 22 Bullets, a revenge movie about a killer who is pumped full of bullets, 22 of them to be precise, and somehow survives. And then sets out for some very ugly payback. Nasty piece of work. But we’re with him all the way. Which is handy because, Reno excepted, 22 Bullets is not much of a film.

But it is vintage Reno, just the sort of likeable bad-guy role that made his name. It also made him, in a recent French poll, the country’s most popular actor.

All good. Except that Reno isn’t actually a native Frenchman. The man baptised Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jimenez was actually born in Casablanca, Morocco, to Spanish exiles of Franco’s fascist regime.

In the 64 years since, he’s collected three wives and five children, starred in France’s biggest box office hit, become the go-to man when the script calls for brutes with an angelic streak and the only French male star who could open a film in the USA (before the arguments start – Depardieu’s Green Card was a co-starring role).

The breakout role for Reno in the English-speaking world was as the titular hitman in the film Léon (also known as Léon: The Professional). And it’s a perfect example of this Reno phenomenon. The story of a killer who strikes up a master/pupil relationship with a pre-pubescent orphan (a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman), it’s the sort of plot that would probably not get made in the timid paedo-panicked world we inhabit today. Even back then it had producers and distributors sweating buckets and was heavily edited on its initial US run, a move which virtually removed the Reno/Portman relationship from the film, thus ruining it.

That it got made at all, even in comparatively permissive 1993, was down to two things. First, it was Reno. This is a proper man we’re talking about here, not some skulking sexual pervert with an eye for jailbait. Second, it wasn’t an American film, though it looked like one and, Reno apart, sounded and felt like one.

In fact it was a Luc Besson film, the first serious attempt by the French writer/director/producer/powerhouse to crack the USA, to take on Hollywood at its own game.

Besson is now so prolific and so successful that he’s almost disappeared into the oligarchosphere. The creator of franchises like the Taxi series, the Transporter series, a fistful of Jet Li films, kiddie movies like the Arthur and the Invisibles series, action movies like District 13, thrillers like the Liam Neeson hit Taken, sci-fi like The Fifth Element, Besson hasn’t yet had a go at silent German expressionist horror but it’s surely only a matter of time.

But back in 1993 it was a different matter. Besson was an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, though a string of French films aimed squarely at a smart multiplex crowd had provided him with the weight he needed to break Hollywood. His battering ram was Jean Reno.

Reno had starred in Besson’s first film, 1981’s short L’avant dernier. After that he went on to take roles in Besson’s next offerings, the punky post-apocalyptic sci-fi The Last Battle and the grungily beautiful Subway, before making waves in the archetypal “cinema du look” movie The Big Blue. After that followed the junky hitgirl drama Nikita, in which Reno played Victor the Cleaner and perfected the stubble/shades/hat look that is all his own. Then, finally, came the film that made both Reno and Besson international players, Léon.

Looking back now we can see what Besson was doing. 1983’s The Last Battle completely turned its back on traditional French moviemaking – which you could unfairly but with some justification characterise as “bourgeois couple stare out of window, make love, stare out of window again” – and plugged into the Hollywood genre mainstream.

1985’s Subway saw Besson casting Christopher Lambert, the bilingual star of the Tarzan movie Greystoke, as his male lead. 1988’s The Big Blue had a co-starring role for American actress Rosanna Arquette while Léon, from 1994, was made entirely in English.

From the very start Besson showed no interest in making moody French cinema for the arthouse circuit. He wanted to make movies as big as Hollywood made them. Bigger even. To do that he needed his films to be shot in English. Or, failing that, peopled with characters an English-speaking audience would go for. Enter Reno, the sort of guy men want to be and women want to be with.

Jean Reno in Nikita
Reno in Nikita

Since Léon Reno has continued working with Besson (who produced 22 Bullets, for example) and has divided his time pretty well, making films for the French market and turning up regularly as a cool French presence in a run of Hollywood hits.. Alongside Robert De Niro in Ronin, Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code and Meg Ryan (when she was still recognisably Meg Ryan) in French Kiss.

At home meanwhile he starred in the time-travel comedy Les Visiteurs, the most expensive French film ever made, and the biggest moneyspinner in French box office history.

So he’s a success. A big star globally and back home. Three wives. The public loves him. Always working. But what about the critics?

Ask Reno himself and he’ll tell you he’s not part of the establishment. In fact he reckons he’s cold-shouldered by critics and the intelligentsia and the real inner circle of French cultural life because he’s so popular. “In France, if you’ve got any sort of talent you’d better keep it here,” he told the UK’s Independent newspaper recently. “And if you’re going to go abroad, it had better not be America.”

It seems Reno is the victim of an old gallic tendency. No one in Europe loves America more than the French, but the French are also acutely aware that you dance with the US at your peril. When it comes to a smackdown between America’s fast-food culture and la manière de vie francaise with its three hour lunches and afternoon naps, then Uncle Sam wins every time.

So French cultural gatekeepers are snooty with Reno, even though the tax the government levies on all foreign films – many of them featuring Reno himself – subsidises homegrown production. And let’s not forget just how vibrant and well loved (and watched) French cinema remains worldwide, to a large extent precisely because of that subsidy.

People go with Reno. They love him. He’s friends with former President Nicolas Sarkozy. In fact the then Interior Minister was best man at Reno’s third wedding in 2006, alongside Johnny Hallyday, a pop icon in France for 50 years.

But Reno has street-level appeal too. Perhaps because of what he’s not as well as what he is. Look at the list of international leading men and it is groaning with actors with lovely hair, moisturised skin, bleached teeth and waxed chests, guys who need to stay hydrated, who fixate on diet, bodyfat percentages and protein shakes – all the paraphernalia of the bulimic teenage girl.

Sure Matthew McConaughey looks buff in those perfume ads, his lips parted like a blow-up dolly. Sure Ryan Reynolds is toned and sleek, his chest more impressive than most of his female co-stars’. Sure Hugh Jackman – well, Hugh, where do we start?

You don’t get that with Reno. Like some latterday John Wayne, whom Reno idolised as a drama student, Reno doesn’t do dental bleaching or built-up shoes. With Reno you get old-fashioned masculinity – proud, hirsute, self-assured, not concerned overly with externals, courteous, dangerous when pushed.

And now that Gérard Depardieu has pretty much retired to his vineyards to become a barrel, Reno is about the only French male actor who really translates worldwide.

Most famous for playing hitmen, Reno himself has started to become bulletproof. How else can you explain the undying affection of everyone (arthouse critics excepted) in the face of some spectacularly terrible career choice. In short, have you seen The Da Vinci Code?

There’s worse, far worse. It’s difficult to know what persuaded Reno to turn up doing the comedy Frenchman routine in the remake of the Pink Panther. Apart from the paycheck, perhaps. The money must have been even better for the infinitely more moronic sequel. Or maybe Reno just felt sympathy for Steve Martin, whose decision to revive a role that virtually killed its original star, Peter Sellers, has virtually killed his own career (I say virtually, but Martin’s movie career has a remarkable ability to return from the dead. Which must surely be some consolation to Lindsay Lohan).

Reno is the man who turned down the role of Agent Smith in The Matrix – Mis-ter An-der-son – to play second banana to Matthew Broderick in 1997’s damp phhht Godzilla. Godzilla!

And if you haven’t seen Couples Retreat – the Vince Vaughn/Jon Favreau relationship comedy featuring Reno as a “couples whisperer” – then here’s a one-word recommendation. Don’t.

The strange thing: in interview after interview Reno seems as happy with, say, the role of hitman Vincent the Cleaner in the seminal Nikita as he is with some godawful load of old rubbish made simply to support popcorn sales.

His explanation is that he just loves working, being on a film set. His unbroken chain of film credits on the Internet Movie Database suggests this might be true. Apart from a pause for breath just after he got married for the third time in 2006, Reno has been at it virtually non-stop for the past 30 years.

Film star years aren’t the same as real years. Spending downtime in luxury resorts, having staff to take care of the bad stuff and always travelling first class can add years to your lifespan. Even so, at 64 Reno must surely be aware that the clock is ticking.

There were rumours he was lining up something for the London stage in 2012, a return to theatre, his first love. It didn’t happen. But there are also more than five films in the pipeline, including the starring role in a biopic about Rasputin, and he recently turned up in Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent mess Margaret. Not forgetting Fantomas, a remake of the classic of the French silent screen which will have to be quite amazing if it’s going to keep the critics quiet.

Let’s hope it is. But whether it’s brilliant work or down in sump with those The Pink Panther films, one thing’s for certain. Everyone will love Reno. They always do.

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© Steve Morrissey 2011

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