Luc Besson’s 1994 effort Leon: The Professional received one of the worst movie reviews I’ve ever read. It was syndicated in my hometown paper, the Topeka Capital-Journal, and I’ve long since forgotten who the original author was or what service it was syndicated by – I was, after all, in high school at the time. The film, then under the title The Professional, was excoriated as being a hyper-violent ripoff of Pulp Fiction that exploited star Natalie Portman (in her film debut at age 12) in ways that resembled kiddie porn.
Every time I re-watch the movie, all I can think is this: someone completely missed the point.
Portman plays Matilda, a young girl whose entire family is slaughtered by crooked DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) in a drug deal gone wrong. She hides with one of her neighbors, Leon (Jean Reno), who turns out to be an expert hitman. That’s really all you need to know. Yes, there is a revenge subplot with Matilda that leads to a big action climax, but it almost seems secondary to the drama between Leon and Matilda, which dominates the middle of the film.
Instead we get amazing acting from Portman, maybe the best debut performance ever. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Hannah Montana, you know the default level of acting for most preteens: loud and hammy. Most child actors thus get praise just for being able to quiet it down and underplay something. Portman goes a step beyond that, showing an ability to switch from loud and aggressive to quiet and vulnerable depending upon what she’s getting from Reno. Dakota Fanning is the only other child actor I’ve seen who truly seems to be listening to the other actor in the scene, and this performance far outdoes anything I’ve seen from Fanning.
The kiddie porn accusation is all the more wrong because the Matilda character is quite sexualized. Like a lot of girls her age, she’s just starting to mature physically, and with that comes a great deal of ego and false confidence. The really unbelievable part of Portman’s performance is that she combines a lot of typical teenager traits – in particular, a tendency to over-dramatize one’s own life – with the psychological damage that comes from being raised by bad parents in a crappy home situation. All of that turns into a sexually aggressive performance, but that’s not to say that Portman herself was being exploited. She simply demonstrated an uncanny instinct for the ways in which Matilda had been exploited.
It’s notable that at Movie Klub we watched Besson’s director’s cut of the film. The first test screening of The Professional was legendarily bad; the audience didn’t like that Matilda is in the same room as Leon, watching him conduct a hit. They didn’t like a scene in which Matilda threatens to commit suicide. And they hated that Leon rejected Matilda’s sexual advances by saying, “I wouldn’t be a very good lover,” as opposed to something like Bruce Willis’ line in Sin City: “there’s wrong, and then there’s wrong, and then there’s this.” So Besson cut more than 25 minutes from the movie for its American release. It was only once Leon became an international hit and made waves in American DVD sales that the original cut became the default version of the movie on offer.
The problem with the theatrical cut, a problem that Leon: The Professional solves, is that Leon is in no position to tell a young girl about what’s right and wrong, and he knows it. He kills because it’s the thing that he’s best at, and he accepts the social costs because he doesn’t have a choice. Matilda’s love fills a hole in his life, in part because he’s as damaged as she is. I have no doubt that he would spurn her physically, because Reno’s performance suggests that he knows it to be wrong, but it also suggests that he wishes she were ten years older.
It mystifies me why Besson made two more films, the historic bomb The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and the well-liked The Fifth Element, and basically quit directing for almost ten years. He has a terrific eye; an early shot with Leon emerging out of darkness behind a target always gives me the chills. He couldn’t have been fed up with the Hollywood system, as he has written and/or produced several more films like Kiss of the Dragon and Taken, films whose directing duties are usually farmed out to French music-video directors. Those films seem to have no sense of patience or subtlety, something which Leon has in spades.
Besson has a certain gift for creating utterly absurd worlds which draw you in to the point that the absurdity seems normal. In the middle of the movie, Leon breaks into the DEA building in downtown New York in broad daylight and kills two federal officers. It’s completely implausible, especially in the post-9/11 world, but by that point the audience so identifies with Leon that we just go with it. We’ve seen the dingy apartments he lives in and the drudgery of his life, so even if his skills as a killer seem a little too good, we can accept them because we know he’s paid a price for them.
Occasionally the absurdity of Leon:The Professional gets in the way, such as a scene where Oldman’s character is having trouble with Internal Affairs, and basically gets out of it by screaming as loud as he can. But those are the sort of movies that Luc Besson deals in: pulpy action films whose plots stay out of the way of the really interesting stuff. If that’s what you’re looking for, you can’t do much better than this.
Reviewed by Mark Young