From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, May 10, 2004

Film Retrospectives: Professional Killers
Leon (a.k.a. The Professional)

I like these calm little moments before the storm.
Stansfield, Leon

The movie Leon was released in the US as The Professional in 1994. A film that balances those "calm moments before the storm" in really stunning fashion, this could very well be the finest film about a hitman ever made. I certainly think it is, though I'm open to arguments to the contrary.

Jean Reno is Leon, one of the most adept professional killers you will ever see. An emigre from Italy, Leon works for Italian crimelord Fat Tony (Danny Aiello). He lives a very sparse life. No connections, nothing to weigh him down. He points out during the film that he is very much like the potted plant he keeps and takes care of: no roots to tie him down.

He lives in a run down apartment building in New York. A couple of doors down, lives a family that could teach the folks on Springer a thing or two. Dad (The Practice's Michael Badalucco) is a dealer who's gotten afoul of corrupt DEA agents. His wife (Little Shop of Horrors' Ellen Greene) may be a prostitute (hinted at but never stated openly). All of which makes for a less than ideal home life for daughter Mathilda (a very young Natalie Portman, in her debut role), and her two half siblings.

When the head agent Dad's crossed (Gary Oldman in all his psychotic glory) takes out the entire family except Mathilda, she runs to Leon because she has nowhere else to go. They develop a bond that goes all over the map, and runs to an ultimate showdown with the men who killed Mathilda's family.

A film that could have been a stock actioner in so many ways, this film defies just about every convention in its genre. Leon is not a brash action hero in any sense. He is very quiet, very reserved. He isn't necessarily smarter than the people he works for or takes out. He simply does what he does and does it very well. Even the euphemism for his work (he tells Mathilda initially he is a "cleaner") is very plain. No snappy one-liners or back talk here.

Mathilda is also not your typical heroine for this kind of film. She is a very precocious young girl. Her true age is never given, but I'd hazard she's supposed to be no older than 12 (Portman was 13 at the time of release). As a result she wavers from the kind of father-daughter hero worship that one would expect from this kind of story to a Lolita-esque lust/emotional love for Leon and the power he possesses.

There's a scene that is more than a little unnerving to watch because it encapsulates this dichotomy so well. On a day when Mathilda has convinced Leon to take a break from his training her to become a killer, they play a variation on charades. Her first two efforts to get Leon to guess her character are "Like a Virgin" phase Madonna and Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday, Mr President. Taken in the context that this movie turned Portman into a rather unsettling sex symbol-as-jailbait figure on the internet (one fansite kept a "Countdown to Legality" timer running until Portman turned 18), this love she has for Leon potentially makes the audience as uncomfortable as it does Leon.

In 1996, The Professional was rereleased to French audiences as Leon. It includes about 26 minutes of footage cut from the original release. Some of these scenes include footage that plays up her desire to pursue the love affair more directly. One of the added scenes includes her asking Leon to make love to her, speaking of the impact and importance of a woman's first time. The scenes added flesh out this angle more, but it doesn't really add anything to the film the improves it noticeably.

To me, the more significant addition is a series of scenes that details Mathilda's training to become a killer more extensively. Her ultimate goal is to become proficient enough to be able to avenge the death of her young brother. But for me, these scenes highlight the father-daughter nature of Leon and Mathilda's relationship more effectively. It's sort of a cockeyed angle on a parent teaching their child a trade. It works fairly well for me, but if it needed to be cut along with the Lolita emphasis, I can live with that. The shorter version is much better for the omissions in the long run.

This is a movie with some really fantastic performances. Portman is amazing as Mathilda. Her maturity as an actress was in full view in her debut. I find it disappointing that it seems like she hadn't made many strong choices to try and push that talent level since then.

Jean Reno and Gary Oldman are superb as two of the baddest badasses you're ever going to see in a movie. They embody the yin and yang of the hero and villain better than most because of the way the portray their characters. Reno's Leon is the picture of order compared to Oldman's unbridled chaos. Even when he makes the conscious choice not to kill a character (with one of my favorite lines: "Death is....whimsical today."), you never are quite sure why he's doing what he's doing. It's not because of a weakness in the performance. It's because he really is that much of a nutbar.

On top of all that is a highly skilled effort by French director/scriptwriter Luc Besson. Besson takes a great deal of the elements of French cinema and makes them work very effectively in the context of a "action" movie. It's a screenplay that lets you really feel the solitary nature of Leon and how hard it is for him to keep those barriers up when Mathilda works her way into his life. Besson explores this type of character in another film I'll be looking at this week: La Femme Nikita.

That's all for tonight. Another killer performance tomorrow.