Is Resident Evil 4’s Leon S. Kennedy Italian? An investigation

Whenever a new Resident Evil game comes out — remake or otherwise — I always like to go down a lore rabbit hole. The Resident Evil series has a wildly vast narrative that isn’t just contained in its main installments. Obscure spinoffs, CGI movies, bonus features bundled with games … there’s so much rich history to dig into, and die-hard series fans have thoroughly cataloged every piece of it through exhaustively detailed fan wikis.

After I finished Capcom’s excellent Resident Evil 4 remake, I was curious to build out my knowledge of its hero, the iconic Leon S. Kennedy. I’d learned more about his backstory than I’d ever known, including how he was blackmailed into becoming a government agent in Wii spinoff Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles. While there were a lot of fascinating surprises to be found, the very first line of Leon’s fan-maintained Resident Evil wiki page threw me for a loop.

“Leon Scott Kennedy is an American of Italian descent,” it reads.

I did a double take. “Kennedy” isn’t exactly the most Italian name and I don’t recall any game implying anything about his heritage. Could that weird detail actually be true? Where would someone even verify that? Was it just a weird in-joke between fans? All I could find on the subject at first was a Reddit thread from this February titled “Is Leon really Italian?” and filled with fans angrily disputing the claim — aghast at the idea of their hero being a paisan.

Someone needed to solve the urban legend. As a second-generation Italian-American myself, I decided to take matters into my own hands and finally uncover the shocking truth.

Di dove sei?

I figured I could solve this very quickly by doing what any reasonable person would do: Emailing Capcom’s PR team and asking if they could confirm that Leon is Italian. Shockingly, the team declined to comment — apparently they had better things to do than confirm this mystery (like be on a much-earned vacation after finishing development of a successful remake). If I wanted answers, I’d have to dig them up myself.

My first challenge would be tracking down where that information came from. While the Resident Evil wiki just casually dropped that bombshell without much context, I’d have more luck on Leon’s Capcom Database wiki page (an entirely separate, but equally thorough entry). Down in the trivia section, I’d find another line corroborating his Italian background: “Leon is an Italian American immigrant.” This time, though, I’d fortunately find a citation. Bizarrely, it’s the only thing on the entire page that has a citation.

A page of a book on Capcom shows Leon S Kennedy art.

A reference line would indicate that the Italian backstory came from a Japanese art book called Capcom Design Works. Seemingly released around 2010, the book shares concept art for various Capcom franchises, with an entire chapter dedicated to Resident Evil (or Biohazard, as it’s called in Japan). While I wasn’t able to secure a physical copy, I tracked down a digital edition and began running some of its designer notes through some translation tools.

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Sure enough, I found the little lore snippet that both wikis seem to have gotten their claim from. A rough translation confirmed the information, as it seemingly calls Leon “an American immigrant of Italian descent.” That seemed like proof enough, but I was still curious to know more. Was that simply a character designer explaining their own internal thinking behind what inspired his look, or was this an agreed-upon piece of backstory Capcom followed when originally creating him for Resident Evil 2?

A further deep dive into the previously mentioned Reddit debate would find one user claiming the reference came from CFC Fan-Book Cap! Vol.6, an issue of an official Capcom magazine that ran between 1996 and 2001. That reference may have just been a case of someone mixing up the magazine with Capcom’s art book; the issue seemingly doesn’t mention anything about Leon’s heritage. It does, however, include a key detail that would crack the story wide open.

Leon the Professional

A magazine interview with Leon S. Kennedy.

CFC Fan-Book Cap! Vol.6 includes a fictional interview with Leon S. Kennedy where the Raccoon City cop talks about women and his favorite alcohol — brandy, in case you wanted to know. It’s the first question that catches my eye, though. According to a translation from fan site Project Umbrella, Leon has a tragic backstory that’s never explored in the games. In response to the question “What motivated you to become a cop?” Kennedy tells the fake interviewer about his family’s death.

“When I was a kid, my family were involved in heinous crimes and I lost them all at once,” the fictional Kennedy says. “I was the only one who survived. I could’ve died, but a police officer took it upon himself to save me. I wanted to become a cop as well, in order to save as many people as I could. That’s why I decided to become a cop.”

My eyes scan over it at first, but immediately dart back to the first line: “My family were involved in heinous crimes.” The wheels started spinning and I suddenly had an epiphany: Was Leon’s family involved with the mafia?

It’s almost a joke at first, but it soon becomes a serious possibility the more I think about it. For one, it would line up with the claim about his heritage, as 90s media at the time was obsessed with exploring the cliché of Italian-Americans as mobsters. Prior to Resident Evil 2’s release, we got a wave of famous mob movies like Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, and A Bronx Tale. It’s not impossible to imagine that Leon was originally inspired by mob movies of the time. In fact, there’s a classic fan theory that connects him to one of the great mobster movies of the era: Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional.

Jean Reno teaches a girl to shoot a gun in Leon The Professional.Leon: The Professional

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The 1994 film stars Jean Reno, who plays an Italian hitman involved with the New York City mob. Through a series of violent incidents, he accidentally becomes a bodyguard for a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda. On a surface level, there’s a lot of connections you can make between that film and Kennedy’s adventures in both Resident Evil 2 and 4. In the former, both Leon and Claire Redfield become protectors for Sherry Birkin, daughter of the Umbrella scientists who invented the zombie-producing G-Virus. Similarly, Resident Evil 4 finds Leon once again saving a young girl in Ashley Graham, the president’s daughter.

Considering that “damsel in distress” stories are all too common in media, that connection may seem like a stretch only built on two characters having the same first name. However, there’s a more specific detail that gives the theory some credence. When completing the original Resident Evil 4, players unlock two very pointed things: a handgun named Matilda and the “Professional” difficulty. That would be one heck of a coincidence.

Made man

Though there’s a clear connection to Léon: The Professional, that didn’t inherently confirm the theory that Kennedy is Italian or that he has any mob ties. There are two details, however, that could support the latter. One is convincing, while the other is a bit of a fun conspiracy theory.

The more credible one has to do with an unlockable costume that appears in the original Resident Evil 4. When completing the game’s Separate Ways side campaign, players unlock some new costumes for Leon and Ashley under the name Special Set 2. Ashley gets a suit of armor, but Leon gets a fit pulled straight out of a 1930s Chicago mob story. That outfit has once again been included in the remake.

To make that connection more clear, players can also unlock a weapon dubbed the Chicago Typewriter. When wearing the mobster outfit, that gun gets a visual modification to make it look like a tommy gun. “Fire away Chicago-style!” a bit of flavor text reads.

Leon S. Kennedy appears dressed up in his mobster costume.Credit: Resident Evil Wiki

With all that seemingly ironclad evidence supporting the theory, we’re left with one glaring question: What kind of Italian has Kennedy for a last name? That’s where the tinfoil hat comes out. Some fans believe that the last name is less built around the character’s heritage and more as a historical reference to the real life Kennedy political empire. There’s a long-running conspiracy theory that the Kennedys had ties to organized crime — specifically Joseph Kennedy, who some theorized was involved in mob activities during the prohibition era. Whether that has any truth is beside the point, but that detail would potentially explain Leon’s otherwise random 1930s mobster outfit.

With all of those various threads, there’s a compelling argument to be made for the Italian American theory. It’s not too hard to imagine Resident Evil 2’s original designers being interested in a dominant strain of American mafia media at the time and very loosely inventing a character with some of those ideas in mind. While they’d never really explore any of this, it could have just turned into a series of Easter eggs based on an in-house character bible that no one outside of Capcom would ever see.

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Biohazard historians

I may never get the firm answer I want, but I ultimately got something more meaningful out of the tireless investigation. A deep dive like this was only possible thanks to the painstaking work a community has gone through to document the series’ long, complicated past. It’s increasingly vital work in an industry that struggles to preserve its history. While Capcom is only focused on bringing back Resident Evil’s most famous games via remakes, other chapters of its story are virtually impossible to track down. From side games that aren’t available on modern platforms to random lore tidbits lost in old promotional material, it would take an accomplished historian to catalog the franchise’s 27-year story.

A Redditor asks "Is Leon really Italian?"

Generations of fans have collectively come together to tackle that challenge, passing down forgotten details like ancient mythology and permanently chronicling it all to the best of their ability. It’s that deep appreciation for long-form storytelling that allows a Reddit thread as funny as “Is Leon really Italian” to transform into a genuinely engrossing debate, with fans working to interpret and contextualize as many details as they can.

I’m a little glad Capcom wouldn’t take the time out of its busy schedule to clarify Leon’s heritage; it’s more fun as a meaningless mystery in a series with nearly three decades worth of history. I’m satisfied enough with the conclusions I’ve drawn through my investigation that I’m happy to confidently tack my piece on to a collective urban legend. It feels like etching my initials into the trunk of a tree. If you want to prove me wrong, it’s your turn to carve your own next to mine.

Resident Evil 4, starring noted Italian Leon S, Kennedy until proven otherwise, is out now on PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

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