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(A quick aside before my actual review. Yes, I know there’s supposed to be an accent mark over the “e” in “Léon” in the title of this piece but I have no idea how to add it. Also, it feels like it’s ten million degrees in my room right now so I apologize if any of my writing is unintelligible. My brain is totally fried.)

The poetic action film is the Great White Whale of film-making for men that don’t want to feel guilty about testosterone-fueled entertainment. We want to believe it’s out there somewhere, but despite all of that, 99% of the time we’re chasing a myth. 1994’s Léon: The Professional from French director Luc Besson (1990’s La Femme Nikita) is likely the closest cinema’s ever come to the truly poetic action film. Though the film is not without its flaws, its devotion to story, mood, and characters alongside a hyperviolent tale of both revenge and love marked Luc Besson as one of the rare purveyors of action cinema that is also a true auteur. The Professional is the sort of film that early period Tarantino could have been proud of, and thanks to an electric big screen debut from Natalie Portman (Black Swan), The Professional is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Léon (Margaret‘s Jean Reno) is a cleaner. But, he’s a cleaner for the Italian mob which means he’s a hitman. And he’s a damn good one though his code of “No women. No kids,” means he has a moral system he operates by. And besides the fact that he’s an almost mind-bogglingly efficient killer, Léon is almost a child at heart. He can not read English. He cares for a single potted plant like it were his own child. And he goes to watch old Gene Kelly movies at the theatre with the pure adulation of only the most innocent at heart. He barely even spends the money he earns which mostly just sits in the “bank” of his mobster boss, Tony (Moonstruck‘s Danny Aiello). But, when he crosses path with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12 year old girl living in his apartment building, his simple life is thrown violently off track.

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The chain-smoking, frequently-cursing Mathilda is the emotionally and physically abused daughter of a local hood who gets himself in over his head with a corrupt and borderline psychotic D.E.A. Agent, Stansfield (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Gary Oldman). When Mathilda’s father and the rest of her family is murdered by Stansfield and other corrupt cops, Mathilda’s life is only spared because she was out buying milk at the time the hit went down. And, against his better judgment, Léon welcomes Mathilda into his home to protect her. Though Mathilda could care less about her abusive father, Stansfield’s men killed her four year old brother, and she desperately wants revenge against the men that killed her family. And so, she forces her way even more into Léon’s life and makes him teach her how to be a cleaner so that she can get the revenge she so desperately craves.

Out of the three principal leads in the film (Portman, Reno, and Goldman), you have one simply jaw-dropping performance, one deliciously hammy performance, and one “meh” performance that works within the context of the character. Natalie Portman’s ferocious turn as Mathilda is easily one of the top 10 child performances of all time, and it should be no surprise that she would later go on to win an Academy Award for Black Swan. She should have been nominated for this. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mathilda puts a gun to her head to force Léon to teach her to be a cleaner where the sadness and desperation that is consuming Mathilda is painfully apparent. Most adult actresses would have struggled with the part. Portman blew it out of the water as a 13 year old.

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Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that I refer to as being deliciously hammy. There is no question that it’s over-the-top. It is insanely over the top, but Stansfield is a villain of monstrous, pure evil, and Luc Besson gave Goldman the freedom to run crazy with the performance. There are two moments in particular that stand out. One is him sashaying to Mozart as he massacres Mathilda’s family. And the other is the infamous “EVERYONE!” quip during the climactic action sequence. Jean Reno is, unfortunately, not the world’s greatest actor. His English wasn’t very good in the 90s, and it shows in this film. But, Léon is a man of quiet contemplation and few words, and so, though Reno doesn’t deliver one of the most exciting performances of the film, he certainly delivers what is needed for his character.

As I’ve said earlier, beyond Portman’s star-making performance (had she never made another film, this would have been legacy-cementing in its own right), The Professional soars because of its singular commitment to character-development and genuine emotional pay-offs over typical action pyrotechnics. Let their be no mistake. The climax of the film is as thrilling as it gets, but its power rests in the fact that two hours into the film, we are now incredibly invested into the outcome of Léon and Mathilda’s lives. They are fully rounded, three dimensional characters, and just like in La Femme Nikita, the psychological aspect of these characters throws off more sparks than action scenes ever could. As a warped coming-of-age tale as well as an equally warped romance, The Professional finds the poetry in its carnage.

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When The Professional was first released in 1994, it generated a fair bit of controversy for the seemingly Lolita-esque nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon. And while I think Mathilda’s attraction to her mentor and savior was decidedly one-way (and based mostly around the lack of a reasonable father figure in her life), I have an entirely new set of contentions with the film’s handling of a thirteen year old heroine. The Professional sexualizes Mathilda. That’s just a fact. From the many angles that the film shoots her, it’s clear that Besson’s camera views Portman as a sexual object. Though it’s clearly not to the level of exploitation of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, I lost track of the number of times that the film shot Portman from the ass down. It was weird and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I think the controversy surrounding Mathilda’s love for Léon was mostly misplaced because this is why people should have been upset.

When the film was released in America (where it was called The Professional as opposed to Léon in Europe), we were given a massively pared down version of the film, and though I’ve fallen in love with the European cut of the movie, I would be interested in seeing the edited version of the film because besides the sexualization of Natalie Portman, my most substantive complaint about The Professional is that it drags a little towards the end. I understand that I love this film because of the character development and commitment to building these characters up, but at times, certain elements felt like filler. Also, there’s one scene during the climactic action sequence where Jean Reno bellows (there really isn’t a better word to use here) that is the bad kind of hammy.

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If you’ve not seen The Professional, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say that outside of the confines of particular war films, it’s arguably one of the greatest action films ever made. It has its flaws, and its particularly French (i.e. Louis Malle committed the same sins in Pretty Baby) with the sexuality of a young girl struck me as heartily disturbing. However, I can forgive Luc Besson his trespasses when the rest of his storytelling and character-building are so strong. From the first time I watched this film more than ten years ago, I fell in love with The Professional. And with each viewing, I find something new to appreciate and notice. Luc Besson is an auteur, and in a world where seemingly every action film (outliers like Looper the glorious exception) feels like a Michael Bay debacle, one must take the time to appreciate the art of a movie like Léon: The Professional.

Final Score: A-

 

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