Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional.
Luc Besson knows how to make stylish action movies and Leon: The Professional, his first English language film, is one of his best. There's plenty of fast-paced action, but what really holds the movie together are the performances by Jean Reno as the title character and a very young Natalie Portman as his old beyond her years, protege. They share a terrific chemistry that is only slightly marred by the pedophillic overtones created not so much by the script, but by Besson's direction.
Leon is a professional hitman working in New York City. He works and lives alone, picking up assignments from Tony, an Italian mobster played by Danny Aiello. While Leon doesn't come across as the smartest person in the world, he's one of the best at his work.
His life is changed when one day his next door neighbor - a low level drug dealer - is killed, along with his entire family, on the orders of Stansfield, a corrupt DEA officer played with psychopathic gusto by Gary Oldman in full chewing up the scenery mode. The only member of the family who survives is 12 year old Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman. In one of the film's tensest scenes, she returns to her apartment building and sees the bloody carnage, but keeps walking past her apartment door and up to Leon's, hoping he will open the door for her so that the killers won't suspect she lives in the apartment they're standing in.
At first Leon plans on only letting Mathilda spend one night, but she soon worms her way into his life. She even insists that she wants him to train her to become a hitman as well so that she can get revenge for the death of her younger brother (the rest of her family weren't the most pleasant people and she doesn't give a shit about them). A very reluctant Leon eventually relents and begins her apprenticeship.
There are several scenes that were cut for the American release of the film because audiences found them awkward and I can understand why. In several scenes Mathilda tells Leon that she's in love with him and at one point tells him that she wants him to take her virginity. If there had been just one moment like this I could understand it. Mathilda's had a pretty fucked up upbringing and maybe she's been sexualized at an early age because of it. There are multiple scenes like it though and Besson seems to be shooting Mathilda as if she was a sexual being, older than she is. This is even more awkward if you know that actress Maïwenn Le Besco, who plays a prostitute in the opening scene has said that she met Besson when she was 11 and fell in love with him when she was 15 and he was 32. The character of Leon, I should hasten to add, never reciprocates Mathilda's feelings and treats her very much like a daughter. Reno has said in interviews that for Leon, the possibility of a physical relationship with Mathilda is not even conceivable.
The action is first rate and while often it goes well beyond the plausible, it's so stylishly done that it doesn't really matter. Besson has an eye for this sort of thing and the combination of his flair and the grittiness of New York City in the early 90s is a potent formula.
Along with the drama and the action there are several scenes of humor. A training montage when Leon takes Mathilda on several jobs, provides some deadly humor.
The heart and soul of the story is the relationship between Leon and Mathilda. It's what gives the ending its emotional impact. Portman gives one of the strongest performances of her career and Reno, while much more subdued, is a match for her. You'll enjoy the action, but you'll remember the movie because of them.
Lots of movies generate sequels, but very few actually deserve them. This movie practically screams for one. I want to know where Mathilda is now. Portman has recently said she'd be interested, but only if Besson directs it, while he has said that he's had the script ready for years, but apparently there are legal complications with the studio who produced this one. I only hope they eventually get worked out before it's too late.
Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional.
This movie works provided you are willing to suspend disbelief. It wants to be a gritty urban action movie but is so over-the-top that it’s difficult to take seriously. Gary Oldman plays the most corrupt and sadistic cop I’ve ever seen in a movie. How he keeps his job is beyond me. Clearly Besson has a cynical view of law enforcement.
What holds it together, as Scott wrote, are the performances of Reno and Portman. Their unlikely partnership is truly original and sets this movie apart. Their relationship seems genuine and both actors are riveting. I found myself so invested in them as characters that I was able to overlook the many action scenes that cross the line of believability.
These include the fact that Oldman’s DEA agent is able to slaughter an entire family, in their apartment, in broad daylight, with no repercussions. The scene where Mathilda goes to Stansfield’s office to kill him is patently ridiculous. Stanfield’s subordinates are all as corrupt as he is as they think nothing of killing innocent people on his orders. And how Leon can waltz in, rescue her, and waltz back out seemingly with ease is not exactly plausible. Then there is the climax, where what seems like an entire army of DEA agents wage war on Leon and Mathilda, in a scene which makes all the previous action scenes seem downright realistic.
Despite these flaws The Professional is entertaining. I found myself rooting for Leon and Mathilda despite the fact that neither of them shows much respect for human life. The sexual manner in which Mathilda behaves towards Leon is off-putting but makes sense given the fact that this is one seriously fucked-up little girl.
Leon: The Professional is an interesting and stylish action-packed movie with an unusual central relationship. It’s just too bad the director felt the need to exaggerate the violence so much. I would have preferred it to spend more time with Leon and Mathilda in their every day life.
Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in Leon: The Professional
I agree more with Scott on Leon: The Professional. Patrick, the over the top action sequences are what makes this such a great watch. So what if they are not believable? It is a movie, not a documentary. Oldman is way over-the-top and the sniffing scene is down right odd, but it establishes him as unpredictable and very dangerous.
My brothers both mentioned the uniqueness of the relationship between Mathilda and Leon, and how it made them both uncomfortable. It may surprise my brothers, but it did not make me feel that way at all. Mathilda's mother was a prostitute and her father was a drug dealer. As Patrick wrote, that could certainly create, "one seriously fucked-up little girl." Mathilda is acting towards Leon as she has seen love expressed in her home by her parents.
I never saw her as seriously asking Leon for "sex" but a confirmation that he loved her and would protect her. If she just wanted to lose her virginity she could have just pursued that with someone else. Also, Leon never makes the slightest suggestion that he even considers doing anything inappropriate with her. Thus her advances are never in jeopardy of having any follow through. Each time she suggested sex, she was really just trying to say she loves him. Look at the scene where Mathilda plays Russian roulette, "If I win, you keep me with you for life." This is a desperate child.
Leon is a loner who sits in movie theaters by himself and calls a plant his best friend. In one scene Mathilda plays a game where she imitates Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, but does not get any reaction from Leon until she does Gene Kelly and he smiles with recognition. She brings life to his life, while he brings purpose to hers.
The dialogue between the leads is very heart felt. Mathilda asks Leon, "Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?" and Leon responds simply, "Always like this." At another point, Mathilda says, "I don't wanna lose you, Leon." He answers assuringly, "You're not going to lose me. You've given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots. And you'll never be alone again, Mathilda."
Not since Paper Moon (1973) has a film showed such an amazing relationship between a father (figure) and a daughter. Leon and Mathilda are to assassinations what Moses and Addie are to con artists. They know and trust each other in ways no one else possibly could. They work together, look out for each other and have an emotional need for each that some would never understand.
Photos © Copyright Gaumont (1994)