With mournful eyes that suggest deep contemplation lurking beneath a sometimes imposing exterior, French actor Jean Reno (born July 30th, 1948) has carved a particular niche in cinema by portraying men who prefer to define themselves through action rather than words. Though his characters may often resort to violence without pause when necessary, that isn't to say that they are without the sort of honor or dignity that has served to define some of the screen's most memorable action stars. Born Juan Moreno Errere y Rimenes in Casablanca, Morocco, the future star spent his early, more carefree days roaming the beaches with friends to escape the searing summer heat. Reno was captivated by the likes of such screen legends as John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and Jean Gabin, who would form the foundation of his screen persona much later in life.
An early stint in drama school found Reno exploring his acting abilities, but little did the aspiring talent know that his life would soon take a new and unexpected turn. Though Reno's life to that point had been somewhat idyllic, Morocco's increasing instability forced Reno's family to flee to France to start anew. Unfortunately, his new homeland was in the midst of turbulent civil unrest. In order to gain his citizenship, Reno had to sign up with the national service, and he was quickly recruited into the army. When his superiors noticed that he had previously been to drama school, they placed him in charge of arts and entertainment, and after a year of service, Reno set his sights on Paris. More drama school was soon to follow, and throughout the 1970s, Reno gained experience through stage and television work. After being singled out by critics for memorable appearances in such plays as Costa-Gavras' Clair de Femme (a role that he would later revisit in the 1979 film of the same name) and touring Europe with Didier Flamand's theater troupe, Reno made his screen debut in the 1979 Raúl Ruiz film The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting.
Throughout the 1980s, Reno made a name for himself playing screen heavies with little dialogue, and in 1981, things began to look up for the rising star when he teamed with hot young French director Luc Besson for the short film L'Avant Dernier. In the years that followed, Reno and Besson not only became close personal friends, but Reno would also appear in almost every one of the director's films. With small parts in Le Dernier Combat (1983) and Subway slowly elevating his star status, it was only a matter of time until Reno landed his breakout role. Of course, it came as no surprise to many that that particular role was in one of Besson's films, and with the release of Besson's Le Grand Bleu in 1988, Reno's time finally came. Cast as the comic rival of diver Jacques Mayhol (Jean-Marc Barr), Reno received international exposure when the film became a worldwide hit with both critics and audiences. In his home country of France, Reno was even nominated for a Best Supporting Actor César. He took a somewhat darker turn two years later when he was cast as a taciturn hit man in Besson's art-house action hit Nikita. By the time Reno took the lead in the 1993 time travel comedy Les Visiteurs (which quickly became the most successful film in French box-office history), he had truly established himself as a lucrative box-office draw. Though the film was indeed a massive success in France, it was deemed "too French" for U.S. distribution, and only the most die-hard fans and critics outside of Reno's native country were truly aware of his star power.
If Reno's rise in France had been successfully boosted thanks, in part, to old friend Besson, so would his international exposure thanks to Besson's masterful 1994 effort Léon (released stateside as The Professional). With Reno once again cast in the role of a hit man, Léon told the remarkably tender tale of a sympathetic killer who befriends a young orphan named Mathilda (memorably portrayed by screen newcomer Natalie Portman) after her family is wiped out by a corrupt DEA agent (an unhinged Gary Oldman). Despite the fact that the heart of Léon and Mathilda's relationship was edited out of the U.S. release after being deemed too intense for stateside audiences (the film would eventually find release in the U.S. uncut thanks to a 2000 DVD release of the original version), the movie still possessed a soulful display of character generally lacking in the action genre, and audiences took to the film in droves. Reno was now a bankable star worldwide, though his unpredictable film choices continued to surprise audiences while also informing them that he was capable of much more than high-octane gunplay.
In the years that followed, Reno made it a point to act in one French film for each American film in which he appeared, and with stateside roles in French Kiss (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Roseanna's Grave (1997), Reno successfully pleased both his testosterone-driven male fan base and his more sensitive female followers. 1998 would prove a remarkably successful year for Reno in both the U.S. and his native France when, after completing the sequel Corridors of Time: The Visitors II, he turned up in both the disastrous wannabe summer blockbuster Godzilla (for which he turned down the role of Agent Smith in The Matrix) and Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer's masterful action thriller Ronin. Holding his own opposite screen legend Robert De Niro, Reno was clearly a talent to be reckoned with. Before adapting The Visitors for U.S. audiences (as Just Visiting), Reno faced unspeakable danger in the Seven-esque French thriller The Crimson Rivers (2000). In between such action efforts as the Besson-produced Wasabi (2001) and the misguided sci-fi remake Rollerball (2002), Reno found time for love in the romantic comedy Jet Lag (also 2002) with Juliette Binoche. Despite the fact that action in such efforts as 2001's Wasabi and 2003's Ruby & Quentin tended to lean toward the comic angle, Reno proved he wasn't afraid to get a little dirty by once again facing danger in Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse (2004). Roles in the French-language flicks L'Corse Enquête} and L'Empire des loups were quick to follow in 2004 and 2005 respectively, and shortly after starring opposite Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits in Benigni's 2005 effort The Tiger and the Snow, Reno would head back into blockbuster territory stateside with supporting performances in The Pink Panther and The Da Vinci Code. In 2006 Reno would take to the skies with some determined American fighter pilots in the World War I war adventure Flyboys. Reno continued to work in films throughout the 2000s, appearing in The Pink Panther 2, Flushed Away, and Couples Retreat.
~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi