October 05, 2011

Léon: The Professional - Review

Léon: The Professional is a 1994 action-thriller/love-story movie written and directed by French filmmaker Luc Besson. It stars Jean Reno as a mob hitman, Gary Oldman as a corrupt DEA agent, a young Natalie Portman, in her feature film debut, as a 12-year-old girl who is taken in by the hitman after her family is murdered.

It's easy to forget 17 years later this was a rather controversial movie, particularly the European cut, simply known as Leon. In fact, the European version was so risque for American test screen audiences the movie's questionable scenes were removed and the film was retitled, The Professional. The European version is clearly the better film specifically because it takes those risks. I only got to see these deleted scenes a couple years ago, and this extended/international version is what I'm reviewing here.

There's an undercurrent in this movie that is designed to make you feel a little uncomfortable and that's what separates it from the pack. Consider the elements: A 12-year-old girl's family, including her three-year-old younger brother are massacred. A hitman (or "cleaner" as he prefers) takes her in. She then enlists his help to teach her how to "clean" so that one day she too could master the art of scrubbing. He teaches her to kill, she teaches him to read and write. They play. He uses an oven mitt with a cartoon pig on it to get her to stop crying about losing her family to murder. Things get kinkier.

She dresses like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Gene Kelly. He dresses like John Wayne. She gets drunk at dinner. She tells him she loves him. She can feel it in the pit of her stomach, she says. It hurts. They practice killing more. At one point he confesses he may not be the best lover in the world. Because, you know, Leon isn't the most mentally mature person in the world. There is always the speck of doubt as to what he might be willing to do. This movie feels dangerous and not just because of the bullets. No matter how many times she professes her love for him, he stays... professional. He treats her like an adopted daughter, and he acts like a father to her.

Reno's performance is a kind of beautiful. Child like, maybe slightly mentally-challenged but undeniably an efficient killer and a protective father figure. He walks as if always in a rush to be somewhere though it seems for the most part, he has very little to do with his time. He looks like an immigrant and fits in perfectly in a city filled with them. He isn't so much a film buff as he is a fan of Gene Kelly movies. His "best friend" is a potted plant which he cares for diligently.

He is a killer of hundreds but he has an undeniable innocence about him. He sits before Danny Aiello like a slightly guilty son or an indentured servant eternally grateful for whatever favor Aiello granted him years ago (he shyly inquires about money rightfully owed to him and Aiello is "holding"). That's the other thing about Leon: you genuinely feel like you're dropping into a fleshed-out world. There is definitely a whole slew of Leon stories before he met Mathilda just as I'm sure there are a slew of Mathilda stories to be had in the years following the film.

Portman, meanwhile, was a revelation at the time. Creepy crushes across America developed from the geeks to the greasers. Part of it was the old soul, with a femme fatale edge. I remember seeing a publicity picture of Portman holding a gun in one hand and a stuffed bunny in the other. Picking up on this vibe perhaps, she was perfectly cast two years later in the Ted Demme movie, Beautiful Girls where even the much older Timothy Hutton fell for her a little.

Then there's Gary Oldman's performance. It's over the top and exaggerated in no uncertain terms, but I find it fits well in the style the film is developed in. Most critics didn't like it, and I'll admit, it makes no sense as to why he seems to be totally immune from consequences for killing anyone he wants, but it's an interesting portrayal none the less.

This frankness, this honesty breathes through The Professional. Even if the world the characters live in are quite unrealistic, the relationships are not. You may not like how it makes you think or feel or worry about, but it's one action film that isn't about to bullshit you either.

The film received generally favorable reviews from critics. As of January 2011, the film holds a "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an aggregate rating of 78% based on 40 critical reviews, and the consensus, "Pivoting on the unusual relationship between seasoned hitman and his 12-year-old apprentice — a breakout turn by young Natalie Portman — Luc Besson's Léon is a stylish and oddly affecting thriller". I believe the young age of the Mathilda character, and Gary Oldman's deliberately overstated portrayal of corrupt DEA officer Norman Stansfield, really divided critics' opinions.

At a modest budget of $16 million, Léon is to some extent an expansion of an idea in Besson's earlier 1990 film, La Femme Nikita. It is still a very entertaining film, not dated, visually stylish as it is graphically violent, and that's exactly what makes The Professional so fascinating. Reno (a longtime Besson collaborator with a compelling, Stallone-like face and previous experience playing a hit man in Nikita) may be working with New York natives like veteran actor Aiello and young Portman, but under Besson's tutelage, the French actor managed the cool trick of making Aiello act less New Yorkish than ever. And Portman — gravely beautiful and self-confident, with her dark hair shingled in the kind of Louise Brooks bob making the Mathilda character into an extraordinary child.

It is stylish, darkly humorous, and almost artsy in its approach to the genre. It still remains one of my personal favorites, I highly recommend it.

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