Blockbusters With Brigham: Léon: The Professional
by Sam Brigham on Friday, February 12th, 2016
Léon: The Professional, an English-language French crime thriller directed by Luc Besson, was released in 1994. I had never heard of the movie, but decided to give it a try during the weekend after exams. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and after looking on the internet I found that I was not alone. In his book, Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s, Olympic swimmer Marc Spitz calls the film a “cult classic.” In a 2014 poll by London magazine, Time Out, Léon: The Professional ranked 42nd on a list of filmmakers’ favorite action movies. Although it was released over 20 years ago and only grossed $45 million at the box office, I believe that Léon: The Professional is a must-see film that should have a more prominent place in motion-picture history.
The film takes place in New York City and focuses on the unlikely bond between a young orphan and a Franco-Italian hitman. A 12-year-old Natalie Portman makes her feature-film debut as Mathilda, a troubled, cigarette-smoking girl living with her abusive father and generally neglectful step-family. After her entire family is gunned down by corrupt Drug Enforcement Agency officers, who found that Mathilda’s father had stolen from the cache of cocaine he was storing for them, Mathilda takes refuge with a man living in an adjacent apartment. She soon discovers that her host, Léon—actor Jean Reno—is actually a hitman. However, seeking vengeance for her lone biological brother killed in the raid, and perhaps dazzled by the absolute power one experiences when taking another’s life, Mathilda decides that she also wants to become a hitman, or as Léon would say, a “cleaner.”
Initially hesitant to take on an apprentice, Léon at first refuses to train Mathilda, but after she shows her willingness to kill by firing a gun out his window, Léon agrees to train Mathilda in the art of killing. In turn, Mathilda cleans Léon’s apartment, runs his errands, and even teaches him how to read. Viewers see a father-daughter relationship develop as Léon teaches Matilda and soon recognize that each fills a void in the other’s life; the overall effect is very captivating. After Mathilda attempts to avenge her late brother, the pair soon become entangled with the same corrupt DEA officers, a posse led by the deranged Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman).
Assigned with the difficult task of appearing naive and curious, but at the same time hardened and vengeful, the pre-teen Portman plays her character, Mathilda, with impressive maturity. Jean Reno, acting as Léon, also performs quite well. Viewers see several exciting scenes in which Léon flawlessly eradicates waves of opponents, while maintaining an understated aura of authority throughout the film. Surprisingly, through playful interactions with Mathilda and his ironically innocent demeanor, Reno’s character also provides comic relief. Léon obsessively tends to a simple potted plant, an amusing symbol of his unrealized capacity for care, especially for Mathilda.
However, Gary Oldman’s performance was the movie’s greatest asset. He convincingly plays psychotic DEA agent Norman Stansfield and remains intimidating throughout all of Stansfield’s unnerving antics, which include taking an unidentified drug that causes exaggerated physical contortions, physically sniffing out those he believes to be lying, and likening his killings to Beethoven’s works. Imposing, yet composed and charming, Stansfield commits the very crimes he is supposed to prevent, but no one is the wiser. Given his capricious nature, Stansfield is extremely unpredictable, even his co-conspirators can’t tell when he approves of their actions and in that lies terrifying suspense. Oldman’s talent not only helped other actors deliver more compelling performances but also enhanced the movie’s credibility. On the ten year anniversary DVD edition of Léon: The Professional, Portman stated that working with Gary Oldman was “probably the easiest acting experience of [her] life,” highlighting that she didn’t have to “act at all” in scenes with him because he played his part so convincingly.
Leon: The Professional definitely delivers for viewers who relish movies with a grim setting and displays two lone-wolf characters, Léon and Mathilda, who eventually develop a great deal of compassion. The action scenes are intense and are supplemented by excellent performances by Natalie Portman, Jean Reno, and, in particular, Gary Oldman: the end result is quite striking. Given the effective combination of opposing cinematic elements, such as terrifying villains and emotional characters, I cannot help but associate the film with other great crime thrillers, like David Fincher’s Seven and Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer. Although Léon: The Professional was not an outstanding commercial success, I recommend the movie to anyone who enjoys intense, thoughtful films.
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