Leon: The Professional Retro Review

In lieu of the spike in Luc Besson inspired films of late, I thought I’d revisit the director’s benchmark in his filmography. The Professional is simply the best of all Besson’s varying elements and comes together in a timeless piece that would have the same impact today as it did when it first hit screens 20 years ago. This is a short tale of a bridge built between two warped youths finding each other out of time. It’s a twisted yet pure love story woven into a crime drama that’s more like a lament on growing up in a violent circumstance that delivers exemplary action scenes, played out with almost poetic effect.

The Plot

A 12 year old girl Matilda (Natalie Portman), growing up in Little Italy, New York is at odds with her family, led by her drug dealing father (Michael Badalucco), though she does love her 4 year old brother. After returning home from running errands she finds that her family, including her brother, have all been killed by a group of corrupt DEA agents, led by the psychotic Stansfeild (Gary Oldman). Matilda immediately seeks shelter with her mysterious neighbour, Leon (Jean Reno). He reluctantly takes her in where she discovers that he’s actually an assassin for a local Mob Kingpin Tony (Danny Aiello). Matilda works out a deal with Leon, that he adopt her as his protégé in exchange for her working for him as a domestic, with the ultimate goal being to avenge the murder of her little brother.

The Target

This is the quintessential Besson film; you should be well acquainted with his style by now. If you like crime dramas or action films, then in this, you’ve found one that manages to be both and neither, and yet still be so much more.

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The Bottom Line

The film that introduced Natalie Portman to the world (and caused a tinge of controversy at sexualizing a 12 year old girl), celebrates its 20th anniversary. Many will say Nikita is the Besson film, and perhaps it is, but Leon would be his best English language offering then. In any case, it’s the more commercially friendly cousin.

The true mark of a good film is that no matter when you watch it, it never loses its shine – and here is one such example that’s certainly aged very well. It’s aided primarily by the fact that it takes place within a restricted area and is driven by the strong central performances of a (at the time) largely unknown cast, and then the inch perfect action sequences. Whereas many modern films in this genre (including some from Besson himself), rely on a number of sets and locations, The Professional is confined. A by-product of this is that it feels like its reigning itself in, like at any moment the screen could explode in action, gunfire and explosions, which simply adds to the suspense. This is also a by-product of what we see in the film, or more specifically, what we don’t see – from the DEA agents, the mob and Leon’s numerous ‘jobs’ – they are gritty elements that are left largely to your imagination as dark unexplored worlds merely casting shadows on the story before us.

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Of course off-setting these darker elements is the now trademark humour, which feels organic even in the oddest of places and successfully distracts you from the graphic violence.

Matilda is a streetwise kid and has seen things that have aged her beyond her years, whilst Leon is a honed weapon, but what he’s best at, is all he knows, and otherwise he’s a socially awkward man-child, dependant on Tony as a father figure. It’s these two characters, an ‘old girl’ and a somewhat boyish man who form an intrinsic chemistry in a warped love story with the realization that there’s little place for them in this world; and from very early on, you know, its destined to end in a hail of bullets.

One cannot reflect on this film without making special mention of the incomparable Gary Oldman, who takes a very simple role (we know very little about him, his motivations, back-story, we only know what he does) and walks off on a maniacal tangent to present us with the unhinged Stansfeild. He completes this very obtuse triangle and the perfect counter-balance to the idealistic hitman Leon, and his one very simple rule ‘no women, no kids’.

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This film is a simple tapestry of warped innocence and love, a modern and sometimes playful fairytale of violence that’s packaged as a stylish almost incomparable action film elegy.
[Unfortunately I’ve yet to see the extended Directors Deluxe edition which contains among other things, more of Matilda’s training]

Luc Besson Quotes:

“There is nothing I can do about the [financial] crisis, but at least I can make you smile for two hours.”

“Some people getting out of the theater and you can see it in their eyes that they were [totally captivated]. What I love is when they talk about the film and they are so passionate that they forgot that I did the film. They always come to this point where they tell me, “You don’t understand…” — interview with Chris Neumer.

“I know that people would love to see Mathilda fifteen years later, but we need to find a good story, and as long as I don’t find a good story, then, no [to a sequel].” Interview with Ryan Lambie for Den of Geek.