Family, love, and professional assassins all come together in Luc Besson’s violent masterpiece Leon: The Professional
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman
Released by Columbia Pictures
110 min. (1994)
When I first watched LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL a few years ago it was solely to check out Natalie Portman’s first role. I enjoyed both Portman and the film on the whole, but returned the VHS (I suppose that dates me a bit) and pretty much forgot about it after that. Then recently I was thinking about possible films to write about for this column and out of nowhere it popped into my head- “oh yeah, that film is fucking awesome!”
The film is about Leon (Jean Reno), a solitary man who behind his cap and John Lennon glasses becomes a ghost in the bustling world of New York City. Being invisible is exactly what Leon wants; when your job is being a “cleaner” for the Italian mob, having personal relationships is out of the question. Full of dramatic close ups and tense camera movement Besson masterfully brings the viewer into Leon’s unpredictable and inevitably violent world; in the opening moments of the film we follow Leon as he takes out what seems like twenty men to get to his mark, then disappears into the darkness.
Besides his boss Tony Leon’s only interaction with the outside world is twelve year old Mathilda (Nathalie Portman). Mathilda obviously enjoys life in the hallway better then her apartment, and eagerly chats with Leon whenever he passes by. It’s hard to imagine this was her first role because even at that age Portman gives Mathilda such incredible depth and charm. So charming is Mathilda that even the hard as nails Leon enjoys talking with the girl.
Unfortunately for both of them, Leon and Mathilda’s innocent relationship of chatting in the hall doesn’t last. One afternoon when Mathilda is out grocery shopping crooked DEA agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his cronies show up and murder her entire family as revenge after her drug-holding father tried to get away with skimming 10% of Stansfield’s stash. Oldman- aka the best bad guy in film history- is pitch perfect as he pops pills then kills women and children without thought or remorse. Upon her return to the building a horrified Mathilda quickly walks past her apartment where her murdered father lies in the doorway, and desperately knocks on Leon’s door. With great hesitation Leon lets Mathilda into his apartment, and with it comes that much unwanted personal relationship.
Leon tries several ways to get rid of Mathilda- even going into her room in the middle of the night and putting a gun to her head- but after awhile comes to accept that he’s stuck with her. Mathilda meanwhile quickly finds out what Leon does for a living but instead of being freaked begs Leon to teach her how to “clean”. “Nothing is the same after you kill someone, you have to sleep with one eye open for the rest of your life” Leon warns her, but Mathilda doesn’t let up. To Leon’s shock, Mathilda is a natural. He begins teaching her the business and in a hilarious scene the two have an on-site practice where Mathilda hits a freaked out drug dealer with paint darts. “No, no, you must hit higher” Leon scolds Mathilda before finishing off the man himself. Amongst all the carnage, Leon and Mathilda find that they’ve become a family.
Leon hinges on the chemistry between the hit man and little girl and thankfully every scene between middle aged Reno and pre-pubescent Portman, be it silly or horribly awkward, works perfectly. Add a deliciously creepy Oldman and Besson’s smart direction into the mix, and you have one perfect night at the movies.