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The Professional  – 100%
Mathilda: So, how old were you when you made your first hit?
Mathilda: Beat ya.
When Austin asked if I could write a review for his ‘Action Week’, I initially thought to myself, “Wow, how am I going to write that many words?” But my fear for writing long reviews quickly dissipated when I decided which movie I’d pick, Léon – The Professional. After watching this film for the first time back in the twentieth century, I’ve always had this nagging question looming in the back of my mind about it, so thanks to Austin I had my chance to re-watch this classic and maybe finally get my question answered…is Léon – The Professional the greatest action film of the 1990’s?
Well let’s start with this question, what makes Léon – The Professional so damn good? Is it Jean Reno’s exotic French accent? Portman’s hypnotic performance? Or perhaps it was Commissioner Gordon’s, er…Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the terrifying corrupt cop Stansfield?
So sit back and relax, I’ll try to answer these questions and not bore you with any long plot summations. I’m sure most of you have seen this wonderful film, but for those who haven’t – here’s a little summary.
First off, Léon – The Professional is a bizarre concoction of comic gore and graphic film noir, Directed and written by Luc Besson, also known as the French ‘Steven Spielberg’. Besson had great run between 1985 and 1997 directing such films as The Fifth Element  and La Femme Nikita . To me, Léon – The Professional was his best effort and it plays out like a prelude to 2010’s Kick Ass. I can see where Chloe Moretz (Hitgirl) may have gotten her inspiration from.
So here’s the story. Living amongst the skyscrapers of New York City, when the Twin Towers still stood tall, we have two very lost souls Léon and Mathilda. Both characters boast fighter personalities, but Léon is more about wanting to love something while Mathilda just wants to be loved. Wait, lets step back a bit, this is starting to sound like Romeo & Juliet, and this story is far from that.
Let’s start with Léon, played brilliantly by Jean Reno. He’s a trained Hitman whose idea of a good time is shooting drug dealers in the head and hanging them off balcony railings. In fact, he’s so threatening to his foes that the bad guys are the ones calling 911 for help, how ironic. As mysterious as his line of work may be, his personal passions are even more compelling. He loves drinking milk and spending time with his best friend, a plant. Claiming that it never asks him questions.
The better half of the duo is Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman. She’s Léon’s truant, 12 year old fouled mouth neighbor who smokes too much and claims her age to be 18 – but nobody seems to fall for it, especially Léon.
Right from the beginning of the film we see an intriguing connection between Léon and Mathilda, her desire for a proper father figure and his desire to take care of something or someone other than a plant.
So let’s move to the first scene – the Supreme Macaroni Company, where we get an amazing close up shot of Léon smoking a cigarette and drinking a cold glass of milk. Reflected in his dark shaded glasses is his employer Morrizzo asking him to take on a job.
“Yeah I’m free Tuesday.” he says to Morrizzo. I guess it’s Tuesday because what ensues is an early glimpse into Léon’s killer side as he takes out an army of drug dealers by himself.
When the bloody carnage is over he returns to his apartment and we see Mathilda out in the hallway getting an earful from her father. You see, Mathilda has a sad life, trapped in a household with an indifferent sister, an abusive father who stores drugs for dealers and a whore mother. The only connection she has to her uncaring family seems to be to her little four year old brother, whom she feels a motherly responsibility for.
Drug dealing dad and a whore mother? What could go wrong right?
Well, after she gets a bloody nose from her father, she storms out of her apartment to do some grocery shopping for Léon. While she’s gone, her house gets raided by a corrupt cop named Stansfield [Gary Oldman] and his thug cop henchmen. Unfortunately the entire family gets shot up including her little brother, who was last seen hiding underneath his bed. (Thankfully that part was off screen).
When Mathilda returns to the scene of the crime, one of Stansfield’s guards is standing at the front door, so she beeline’s to Léon’s apartment and pleads to be let in. Léon is reluctant, but eventually lets her in and consoles her with a puppet show. Although Léon’s first scene in the film portrays his dark side, we get an early look at his protector side as well.
Throughout the film I continued to question Mathilda’s strength or lack of emotion. Was she really sad about the death of her family? It didn’t take very long for Léon to cheer her up. Later in the film, we see Mathilda’s personality getting even stronger when she handles a group of neighborhood bully kids with ease, proving she’s finally tough enough to stand on her own.
Wanting revenge for her families death, especially her little brother’s, she pleads with Léon to teach her the ways of a ‘Cleaner’. Léon feels responsible for her life but he doesn’t feel it’s morally correct to do so. He says to her ‘it’s better to forget than revenge’. But her desperateness wins out as she offers up a deal and forces him into a game of Russian Roulette in which she eventually wins his services.
So he teaches her how to be a ‘Cleaner’ as they shack up in a hotel and away from ground zero. He also becomes a father figure to her, telling her to stop smoking and cursing. She replies with her usual, ‘Ok’.
At times Mathilda’s intentions for Léon get a little confusing, but we as the audience know she’s just looking for a stable father figure. She tells Léon repeatedly that she’s falling in love with him. She even tells the hotel’s desk clerk that Léon is her lover. An admission that later gets them kicked out of the hotel.
Although the film seems to be fairly edgy, there are plenty of funny scenes to offset the brutality. For instance, at the hotel Mathilda tries to reciprocate Léon’s cheering up tactics by dressing up as Madonna, Gene Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin. Léon isn’t thrilled when Mathilda entices him into doing an impression of his own. He does a great John Wayne.
So yada, yada, yada…Mathilda gets caught by the bad guys which sets up Léon’s last stand. And damn is it a good one!
Stansfield forces Mathilda into revealing their new hideaway, but Léon is ready for them hanging upside down, guns cocked and draped with a Batman utility belt. It turns into an all out shooting spree where Léon stealthily maneuvers like a cat through the henchman and sets Mathilda free. He manages a smart escape himself which leads to a very troubling, yet satisfying ending. Stansfield gets one of the best bad guy kills in recent memory, the ‘Ring Trick Way’.
Throughout the film we see Besson use several instances of symbolism. Plants, pigs, the Transformers and milk. I’m not entirely sure what the milk and pigs meant but they were often referred to, so it must have been something important. The Transformers, which always seemed to be playing on the television represented how they both transformed and changed each other. Léon’s plant represented growth and a precursor to his and Mathilda’s relationship. As the plant grew, so did their love for each other. Mathilda also mentions to Léon that she would like to pot his plant in Central Park, essentially finding it a stable home and somewhere to grow its roots – similar to both of their real life desires. Later in the film she does plant it in the park but never does establish any roots for herself.
Léon – The Professional has a wonderful soundtrack, featuring Sting’s ‘Shape of my Heart’, Bjork’s ‘Venus as a Boy’ and even Natalie Portman singing ‘Like a Virgin’. It also showcases a nice little vignette of “It’s Always Fair Weather,” featuring Gene Kelly singing “I Like Myself” while dancing on roller skates.
While Léon – The Professional can be ultra-violent, it’s quite tender at the same time. It’s non-gimmicky script and effective pacing is both intelligent and funny. What makes it so special is 1) it’s conflict, a never-ending power struggle between an assassin and an orphan, 2) a relationship built out of ugliness and death, 3) an unforgettable resolution that will go down in history and, 4) the dude from ‘Do the Right Thing’ is in it.
It’s a gripping ride anchored by Natalie Portman’s best performance to date. She demonstrates her on screen ability in a scene at the restaurant when she chugs a full glass of champagne which leads to her bursting out in laughter for a good 30 seconds. Truly remarkable stuff.
What makes Léon so bloody good is just that, its bloody good. I’ve meant to re-watch this film so many times but never had a chance, thankfully Austin gave me an excuse to sit down and have another look-see. Thanks for letting me share my views on one of my favorite films of that decade.
But is it the greatest action film of the 90’s?
Fuck no, Terminator 2 is. But Léon – The Professional is still superb.
Chris @ filmhipster
(This song was reportedly inspired by the movie, so enjoy – ABB)