Léon works for an Italian restaurant owner (Danny Aiello) who’s most likely linked to the Mob, but it doesn’t really matter. The man gives him targets, and Léon terminates them, end of the story. When the family of a little girl down the hall is brutally murdered by a bunch of corrupt cops, he makes what another would consider a mistake though: he lets her into her life. She’s Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a bitter teenage girl who wishes she could avenge her relatives, with violence if that’s what it takes. She also has a more tender side, and Léon is more than a friend in her heart. But she’s just a kid, so love might have to wait. In any case, Léon’s willing to help her figure things out, even though he’s as confused as her…
This extremely good film was directed by French filmmaker Luc Besson, best known for “La Femme Nikita”, which “The Professional” (aka “Léon”) kinda follows in spirit. The themes are similar, but this new film is much better, mostly because Besson’s writing and directing skills improved over the years. Another difference is that the film was shot in New York, in English, and there’s an American edge to it, even though it still has an European sensibility. Besson’s film is sometimes packed with action and raw violence, but it’s mostly character driven. It’s all about this unlikely couple trapped in a hard-boiled world. Besson paces his film cleverly, giving the shoot-outs a fast, dynamic feel while taking more time when it comes to quieter scenes to get to know the characters.
Then you’ve got Jean Reno, an actor too good to be true. He’s kind of like the French De Niro, and his performance is full of nuances: Leon is cold-hearted and touching at the same time. A fabulous character actor, Reno takes the nettoyeur he played in “Nikita” and makes him more human. His performance is wonderfully restrained. He’s great in the over-the-top gunfights, but it’s in the more intimate scenes that he’s the most memorable. He makes a great pair with the little Natalie Portman, a charming Lolita on her way to becoming a great actress (and with her involvement in the next “Star Wars” trilogy, she could become a star as well). Besson also hired the always impressive Gary Oldman, who plays a disturbed and disturbing coked up cop with a short fuse.
Some (American) critics thought that Mathilda’s young age was disturbing, but hey, don’t tell me that teenagers in the US of A never get into tense, brutal situations. I really don’t think that Besson is being exploitative. His film has heart, and the relation between the hitman and his young protégé is nothing but tender. America is getting so uptight! Oh no, not kids who do something else than eating candy! I’m sure Scorsese couldn’t even make “Taxi Driver” today because of the 12 year old prostitute that Jodie Foster played. Say what you want, but “The Professional” is an exceptionally well crafted urban drama. Great films are supposed to be daring, dammit!