Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Jean Reno (Leon), Natalie Portman (Mathilda), Gary Oldman (Stansfield)
Before emotionally troubled hitmen were popularized once again by characters like Jason Bourne, director Luc Besson brought “Leon: The Professional” to the big screen. Played by the effortlessly cool and capable Jean Reno, the film has amassed a cult following ever since it was released in 1994, helping to cement its position close to the top of the IMDB Top 250 list.
Jean Reno plays Leon, a rather unremarkable middle aged hitman who has grown to become the ultimate expression of strategic and methodical violence. He works for a single client, local mob boss Tony (Danny Aiello), who has taken him under his wing ever since he landed as an illiterate immigrant in the New York harbor.
Unlike the latest hitmen Hollywood has produced, Leon immediately appeared to be a guy who knows nothing better than to kill people, but who does not necessarily enjoy doing so. Leon is not particularly troubled or conflicted by what he does, but he comes across as lonely man who never found anything to live for besides putting his very peculiar talent to use. Leon is a prisoner of routine and anonymity inside his modest Manhattan apartment. His chosen path has been the perfect excuse to remain distant and closed to any meaningful social interaction. It becomes clear as the film progresses that Leon is more afraid of living outside of his shell, than to kill a dozen of armed men.
A few doors from his apartment is the family of Mathilda, played with great conviction and emotion by a precociously talented Natalie Portman. When Leon and her first exchange words, she is sitting by the staircase, legs dangling in between the railing, sporting a bruise on her right temple, dressed like a much older woman and a cigarette in hand. Despite his usual hesitation to open up to talk to anyone, Leon can’t keep his paternal instinct in check and decides to worry about this little girl standing a few feet away from his apartment.
As we soon find out, Leon and Mathilda share more in common that we would think. They are both outcasts of society and while Leon has spent a lifetime doing so, Mathilda is the victim of a fractured family and an abusive dad who is mixed up in the drug business and owes dangerous men some answers. Upon the introduction of Stansfield, a psychopathic criminal mind played with creepy intensity by the talented Gary Oldman, Mathilda seeks for help in the only man that has stopped to show some care.
Though their relationship is forced at the beginning, Leon and Matilda find a purpose to live another day in each other. No longer does Leon have only a plant to take care of (rather obsessively I might add), but he must also tend to the little girl who has surprisingly come into his life. Mathilda finds in Leon a friend, one in whom she can trust with her life, in whom she can lean on to take revenge on the people that have turned her life upside down so suddenly.
The relationship that develops between them has an interesting combination of creepiness (mostly stemming from Matilda’s love for Leon), comedy and drama. The age difference, though physically imposing, does not translate into an intellectual disparity. Leon can’t read and seems to be socially incompetent, while Mathilda, though too young to discern between what can be done and what cannot, is certainly the more confident and assertive of the two.
Part of the success of the film lies in the intricacies of the relationship that forms between Leon and Mathilda. On one hand, Jean Reno embodies a character that seems to be taken straight out of the encyclopedia of French film, inspired by the unforgettably cool Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. However, Leon transcends this unbreakable image of calm and collected coolness by revealing, ever so slightly, that his persona is partly a facade to cover an insecure and shy self. The character of Mathilda, on the other hand, seems to be inspired in the uncomfortable yet incredibly effective effect that young kids still generate when framed within boundaries that are unbecoming of a young soul. Natalie Portman, though only thirteen at the time, exudes a degree of confidence and rebellion that goes at odds with her very innocent physique, generating a dual effect that is endlessly captivating to watch, especially when paired with the tall and quiet Jean Reno.
Though weirdly comedic and thrilling at times, “Leon: The Professional” is a film that seems a bit rushed and structurally simplistic. It neither manages to be on the side of realism, nor on the side of fiction, which keeps the film from being a completely brilliant piece of work. The performances, especially that by Gary Oldman, border on the theatrical which works from a comedic point of view, but they keep us from taking the film too seriously as it slowly becomes a more dramatic affair. The structure of it all asks us to take a few leaps of faith that, more often than not, are far too great to go unnoticed.
While it is not the best crafted film you will ever watch, “Leon: The Professional” is strangely cool, anchored by the unforgettable relationship between a young girl and a much older man who are in the business of killing people.
Rating: 3.5/5 (good)