Some viewers write it off as a boring story with the only points worthy of discussion being a gonzo performance by Gary Oldman – depending on the opinion of the reviewer not always a good thing – and the fact an impressionable young girl finds herself alongside an adult hitman, with the film not shying away from placing her alongside him in intense situations of both violence and confusing pre-teen ‘urges’.
When I first watched The Professional (as it was initially referred to here), most of these scenes were excised from the version for fear of turning the audience against the film, and now watching the original director’s cut it is fair to say that some of the restored scenes do blur the line and change the tone of the 90s version – especially scenes which take Mathilda’s involvement far beyond the semi-innocent ‘training’ in the cut film to far a more comprehensive and active extent.
Jean Reno plays the titular character – regardless of the name on the spine of the DVD – he is both Leon and the Professional. A quiet intense man who lives a solitary existence of discipline and ritual, honing his skills as an assassin that leaves no trace and carries out his work cleanly and perfectly, a man with only two parameters to his work:
‘No women. No kids.’
When the family that lives next door in his modest apartment building is butchered by corrupt police after a drug deal gone wrong, leaving only 11 year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman), Leon has virtually no choice but to literally take her in, lest he break his own rules through deliberate inaction.
In the days and weeks that follow, impressionable Mathilda – who feels she is wise beyond her years – comes to realise the enormity of her situation. This is only magnified when she learns of Leon’s true occupation. Of course being no more than a kid, Mathilda hardly finds this news abhorrent, but decides that she wishes to learn the ropes of what Leon refers to as ‘cleaning’.
This leads to a strange new existence for Leon, he cannot force pre-teen Mathilda out into the real world, but allowing her to remain compromises his disciplined existence. The mismatched duo settle in to a ‘Daddy / Daughter’ relationship, with Mathilda remaining home while Leon heads off to ‘work’, the issue rapidly becomes that Mathilda rapidly starts seeing Leon as less of a Father figure, and more of a crush…
Seeing that Mathilda is so headstrong, determined and convincing, and that Leon is if anything slightly child-like and has been shielded from normal human relationships, Leon ultimately yields a little and tentatively commits to basic training; something his employer Tony (Danny Aiello) is rightfully doubtful of.
Regardless of suitability or basic ethics, the Leon / Mathilda relationship evolves into a strange partnership, and bringing your (pseudo) daughter to work days take on strange and uncomfortable significance. As Mathilda develops new skills and confidences unbecoming of her fragile years it is more and more evident that her ultimate intent is to avenge the deaths of her family…
Which brings us to Mr Gary Oldman and his role as corrupt cop Stansfield.
Stansfield works for the Drug Enforcement Agency in the police force, however his entire unit is entirely crooked. Oldman toes the fine line between over the top intensity and cartoonishness well for the most part, and I guess if you are looking to forgive some of his antics you could always point to the green and yellow capsules that he takes prior to his more ‘memorable’ sequences.
What is undeniable is that the and inescapable routine that the reserved and measured Leon is bound by is an effective counterpoint to the haphazard and impetuous existence of Stansfield. Having initially innocent Mathilda embroiled between these ying and yang characters provides the film with a centre, and the inevitable feeling that all three characters will find themselves in the same place at the same time.
Leon is full of long low key scenes with equally subtle background music, 90% of the dialogue is between Mathilda and Leon – with a good two thirds of each conversation dominated by the precocious child. These scenes are punctuated by sudden dramatic scenes of violence, especially as the film nears its conclusion and Mathilda finally learns that there are some things that kids shouldn’t be subjected to regardless of how ‘ready’ they think they are.
Leon: The Professional was directed and written by Luc Besson, who has managed to leave his fingerprints on several essential action flicks from the last couple decades, Taken, Kiss of the Dragon, The Transporter and Unleashed included. Leon seems to be quite a personal work, and while some of the other works listed are very good and worth checking out, in my mind Leon: The Professional stands head and shoulders above them all.
This film granted both Gary Oldman and Jean Reno eternal credibility to a generation of young film-goers, and helped launch the career of Natalie Portman. For a moment it almost made me want to buy a skull cap…
Now nearly two decades on I am at odds with the more ‘risky’ scenes that further the on the job training and ‘romantic’ aspects of the storyline. I am by no means decrying their inclusion as being abhorrent or immoral, but I similarly don’t really see them adding much to what was already an amazing and essential film.
Final Rating – 9 / 10. A simple story about a very non-simple situation, Leon remains an all time classic.