Luc Besson is one of the more slept on filmmakers of this generation in terms of his prolific work. Having started his career with L’Avant Dernier in the early 80s, Luc has amassed a filmography of over 12+ films in his directorial portfolio. In addition to that, he is an avid writer and producer for both French films and American films. One of his standout films happens to feature Natalie Portman’s first major role Leon: The Professional, a film about a boyish-like hitman who takes a recently orphaned little girl as his apprentice.
The film, set in New York, starts off with our first introduction to Leon. We follow a car rolling through Little Italy before it stops in front of a bodega, where we first meet Leon getting a contract for a client. Besson depicts the gruesome kill with his signature style of close-up angles and unique push-ins, tailing after the hitman Leon (Jean Reno), until he finally emerges out of the shadows with a knife to his clients throat. He gets a call from his employer, is given instructions, and then lets him go after having terminated the rest of his crew, showcasing Leon’s adeptness in the field The next scene follows Leon after his hit, where he decides to go to the movies and watch It’s Always Fair Weather, showcasing his wonderment with stories and his innocence, as well as bewilderment, to the world.
Afterwards we are introduced to our other main character, Mathilda (Portman), smoking outside between the steps pensively. After her first encounter with Leon, she goes back to inside her apartment with her family where we meet her sister, mother, father and little brother. But not for long, as it is soon revealed that her father is a drug dealer who doesn’t have the right drugs for his boss. To add insult to injury, his boss is a DEA agent named Stansfield, played by an eccentric Gary Oldman. After not having the necessary stash for his boss, Stansfield sends his goons to kill him, but to showcase Stansfield’s and the father’s deplorableness, Besson has him kill the entire family while Mathilda’s father hides in the back like a coward. Most assuredly, Besson wanted to comment on children in urban environments and how someone like Mathilda should not have to live in such a toxic household.
After escaping Stansfield’s men by taking solace in Leon’s apartment, the film picks up by showing him reluctantly train Mathilda to be a hitman. Leon’s relationship with Mathilda is showcased quite well throughout the course of the film, as Luc Besson takes to unveiling their strange relationship and Mathilda’s affection for her new father figure. Admittedly, the pedophilic nature of these scenes, combined with Portman’s commanding screen presence and Reno’s futile attempts to fight his submissiveness, make you want to crawl out of your own skin. One can understand that in retrospect this makes for incredible performances on both their parts, but nevertheless in this day and age it’s obvious how much we want those scenes of Portman tantalizing Reno to stop.
Leon’s symbolic innocence is regularly displayed through his inability to read and routine drinking of milk Juxtaposed with Mathilda’s scantily clothed body and intellectual superiority, this make for an incredible duo of conflict that any writer would love to get their hands on. Yet can’t imagine being on-set having to witness a 12-year old try to seduce a middle-aged man, and do it so convincingly. Interviews with a now-38 Natalie Portman detailing the behind-the-scenes of The Professional reveal that her parents were heavily involved with the project- right down to script rewrites- making sure young Portman’s career was not comprised.
Despite this, Besson still creates an incredible film jam-packed with style and charisma. Amazing performances abound throughout the cat ranging from Oldman as Stansfeld and Danny Aiello as “Old Tony,” make or a gripping movie that definitely keeps hold of you until the very end. Its’ stylized gritty and grunge yellow tints and dirty, yet well-choreographed action only act as beautiful garnishes to this great work that ultimately coalescence into an amazing piece.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.
While Leon: The Professional has been widely criticized for its hyper-sexualization of a minor, it remains one of the standout action movies of the 90s. Given how the film’s the uncomfortable nature was all in Besson’s intentions, you start to think about his interest in flipping dynamics and twisted relationships which can be fun in most cases and awkward in others. Yet it brings more critique to Gary Oldman’s role as the villain who, albeit interesting, is not as complex as Mathilda or Leon.
Besides this, we have Leon to thank for one of the great memes of all time: Oldman’s iconic “EVERYONE” line. Combined with a subtle and interesting death shot, I see why Natalie Portman was nominated for an Oscar for this role. I recommend you take some time out and watch this film simply to witness the making of one of the most underrated actresses of our generation