Léon: The Professional (1994)

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With the release of Luc Besson’s new movie, Lucy, this weekend, I’m going to talk about another movie the French director made which is definitely worth watching. Léon: The Professional is perhaps Besson’s best movie (although, The Fifth Element is also a personal favorite of mine), and it involves some great action in the midst of a story of an unconventional relationship between a hitman and a 12-year-old girl.

Léon (Jean Reno) is a hitman who works for an Italian mobster named Tony (Danny Aiello), who owns a restaurant in Little Italy. Léon lives in the same building as a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who he finds black-eyed and sitting in the hallway smoking cigarettes. Mathilda’s father, aside from being an abusive jerk, is involved in a deal with some corrupt DEA agents, including one named Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), where he agrees to hide cocaine in his apartment for a sum of money. When the DEA agents find that some of the drugs are missing, they storm the apartment and kill the whole family, including a 4-year-old boy. Mathilda is the only one to survive because she was out grocery shopping at the time. Upon her return, Léon reluctantly hides Mathilda in his apartment. After finding out what Léon does for a living, Mathilda guilt trips him into taking her under his wing and teaching her how to kill, or “clean,” as they refer to it, so that she may get revenge on Stansfield, the man who killed her little brother.

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Let me just say that the version I am talking about here is the extended one, not the U.S. cut. The extended has 26 extra minutes of story that delves deeper into the characters and the relationship between Léon and Mathilda. Some scenes were cut because some Americans felt that this movie was too “pedophilic” in nature, which is simply not true. Mathilda has a growing infatuation with Léon throughout the movie, but not once does Léon condone or act upon this infatuation. Mathilda is a young, naive girl who doesn’t know the difference between romantic love and platonic love, probably due to the fact that her family couldn’t care less about her. What Léon feels for Mathilda is more of a fatherly type of love. He feels responsible for her, and feels the need to have to protect her. However, it can be uncomfortable to watch some of these exchanges, but only because you feel bad for Mathilda for not recognizing the difference between certain kinds of love, and also you feel uncomfortable for Léon and that he has to be put in that awkward situation. I mean, how would you feel if you had a young child telling you that they were in love with you? My guess is, pretty awkward.

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Actually, Léon has an innocent kind of nature about him. Despite that he’s a hitman, he has certain quirks that show that he’s more than just a killer. He is a guy who nurtures a plant that he considers to be his best friend, he drinks nothing but milk, he enjoys the simplicity of going to the movies and seeing Gene Kelly musicals. Léon is also sometimes naive. For example, he trusts his boss, Tony, when Tony says that Léon’s money will be safest with him, because he never gets ripped off. However, it’s pretty obvious that Tony is just holding out on Léon, he’s either spending the money, or he’s keeping it and waiting around for Léon to get killed one day so he’ll never have to pay up. This naivety further expands upon Léon’s innocence. In addition to that,  Léon brushes off the inappropriate flirtatious behavior from Mathilda and tries to explain to her, in a way that she’ll understand, why he believes that she is confusing her feelings. He also warns her that once she kills somebody, her life will never be the same again. 

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During her training, which is further explored in the extended version, the routine of Léon and Mathilda when they are going on their “cleaning” jobs involves Mathilda shooting the targets with paint instead of real bullets. This could’ve easily been an absurd movie where a 12-year-old goes around actually taking people’s lives, but it isn’t. There are boundaries, and what we get instead is a movie, set to the backdrop of city violence, about a father/teacher figure who is helping his pupil achieve maturity while still maintaining a shred of her childhood innocence.

Both Jean Reno and Natalie Portman are great in their roles. This was Natalie Portman’s very first movie and her portrayal of a young girl who is desperate for companionship is both fascinating and heart-breaking. The scene when she knocks on Léon’s door after her family has just been murdered and, with tears in her eyes, is begging him to open the door, is a pretty powerful scene that she handled unbelievably well. Another memorable scene of hers is when she is holding a gun to her own head to test and see if Léon will stop her from pulling the trigger. It is an intense performance where Portman proves that she had undeniable talent when she was just a young girl.

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Gary Oldman gives an over the top performance as a crazy, corrupt DEA agent. He takes a pill, a substance of which is never clearly identified, before going on a shooting rampage in Mathilda’s home, as well as in another scene when he meets Mathilda in a bathroom. His reaction to this pill, whatever it is, is incredibly strange. Something within him clicks immediately and he awkwardly jerks his body. It seems like some sort of dehumanizing effect that makes it easier for him to take a life without feeling guilty about it. He is scary in this role. I also enjoyed watching him play the villain in Besson’s The Fifth Element. He has proven that he can play the villain very well.

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Luc Besson has had plenty of hits and misses when it comes to directing, writing and/or producing action films. Having written and produced movies like TakenThe Transporter series, the more recent Brick Mansions, and having directed films like Le Femme Nikita, he more often than not shows what he excels at and what he doesn’t. Sometimes the plots are absurd, and are inferior to the action, other times they are well-written and equally balanced with the action.

Léon: The Professional is an example of a Besson film done right. The story is intriguing and well-written, the action is not overly prominent, and it takes time to develop the characters, especially the odd relationship between Léon and Mathilda. The talent of the three main actors really bring the story to the next level, add that with the amazing direction and cinematography, and there you have one of the most enjoyable movies of the 90s.

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