Leon: The Professional (1994)
Leon: The Professional (1994)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.

Release Date: November 18th, 1994 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Luc Besson Actors: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello, Peter Appel, Willie One Blood, Michael Badalucco, Ellen Greene

 


 

L

eon (Jean Reno) is a professional “cleaner” (hitman) in New York, highly skilled and extensively trained, with a mysterious background that clearly involved parental abandonment and intense military instruction instead of affection. Currently, he works for shady mobster Tony (Danny Aiello), to pay off the debt of traveling to the United States. He’s called upon from time to time to eliminate uncooperative gangsters, conducting elite operations with the utmost ease, but his personal passions are directed toward watching classic films, nurturing a potted plant (his best friend), and staying sharp through regular exercising in his tiny apartment. Leon also lives down the hall from a 12-year-old girl, Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman), who is regularly the target of abuse from her father, who cuts drugs on the sly (which infuriates the men for whom he works).

When unhinged dealer Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) comes to the complex in search of Mathilda’s father (Michael Badalucco), the result is a cacophonous bloodbath and the death of her entire family. Leon reluctantly houses Mathilda from Stansfield’s gun-toting goons long enough for the police to arrive, but she then has nowhere to go, forcing Leon to continue sheltering her from pursuit. Even more unenthusiastically, he takes her under his wing to train her as a cleaner in exchange for maid services and teaching him to read and write. Her ultimate goal is to get revenge against Stansfield, while Leon’s mission is just to tolerate her presence – and attempt not to begin caring for his new companion.

The incredibly mismatched duo and their activities are purposely uncomfortable, with Mathilda demonstrating the confusing emotions of a traumatized adolescent girl, consumed with brutal violence and vengeance while simultaneously battling corrupted feelings of first love with her mentor (themes first explored – though not as controversially – in director Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita”). Leon is the moralistic surrogate father, coping with his own emotionally damaging past while struggling with the abrupt change of having a child inserted into his cold, lonesome existence. But Mathilda’s over-sexualization will render most audiences disquieted, as she attempts to complete the unachievable family unit as both child and lover. Much of the second act is used solely for character development, with Leon distressfully coping with Mathilda’s unsubtle advances.

“Leon: The Professional” is not an action film – and that might be its greatest quality. There’s a surprising amount of depth, drama, and affection for a film marketed primarily as a shoot-‘em-up thriller. It is not without suspense and a splendidly rambunctious finale, but it’s ultimately a character study that examines polar opposites and the human condition amidst violent upheaval. The pacing is peculiar to match this dichotomy, in that moments of bonding are drawn out or given time to manifest fully, while sequences of action are virtually impetuous, constituted from thin air. But it works.

This is aided by solid acting (even though the characters are highly eccentric), led by the reserved, restrained Jean Reno. Gary Oldman makes for the most memorably twisted, idiosyncratic, downright weird villains (previously appearing in “True Romance” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), and his role in “Leon: The Professional” is no exception. Merciless and the embodiment of pure evil, Stansfield is an over-the-top creation nicely complementing the uniqueness of the hero. Only Oldman can take such a deranged part and handle it sincerely and believably. Portman is also effective (promising her inevitable rise to leading lady), though the extended cut of the film reveals a few unconvincing bits of teary lamentations. Also of note is composer Eric Serra’s score, which makes the most of thundering bass and nervous violins to augment the alternating mayhem and unrequited romance, despite also employing interruptive orchestral sounds for numerous moments of calm, where music should not have intruded. But in its tackling of potent ideas, gratifying gangster chaos, a strong female character, and complex emotions, “Leon: The Professional” is Besson’s best foray into the crime-drama genre.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10