By Afra Nariman
Léon: The Professional
Directed by: Luc Besson
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello
After 12 year old Mathilda (played by Natalie Portman) experiences the murder of her entire family at the hands of a group of DEA agents, she turns to a friendly neighbor named Léon (played by Jean Reno), who happens to also be a highly skilled hitman. The two of them bond as Mathilda trains in order to avenge her family’s death.
Besson’s cult-classic, ultra popular film Léon: The Professional will surely entertain you more than most films. It will likely also land higher on your “Favorites” list than any other list you make. It’s fully engaging, action packed, comedic, it has emotional substance and it has a fun story. You would think that a film like this one may over emphasize its action sequences, but if action isn’t something you love about movies, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the way this film is able to balance the action with its dramatic story. The action sequences never overstay their welcome; but it is worth noting that if you do love action in movies, you will still get your fix and enjoy this film.
For the most part, Léon is a simple man. He drinks a lot of milk (really, a lot). His best friend is a house plant. He doesn’t really socialize more than his brief and occasional meetings with his “boss” Tony (played by Danny Aiello). And, this may not sound very simple, but he makes it look simple — he’s also a highly skilled, ultra efficient hitman, or “cleaner” as he likes to put it. His life doesn’t get more complicated than those few things — until one fateful day when a neighboring family of his is brutally murdered by DEA agents, over complications involving a shady drug-related situation. The only surviving member of that family is Mathilda, who fearfully approaches Léon for help and support in her moment of deepest need. At first, Léon is reluctant to help her for more than a day, or to keep her around at all. Nevertheless, time does the trick. The two slowly form a strong and heartwarming bond with one another, which gives us the film’s style. Mathilda even drops us a hint of what we should think about while watching the two of them. We know of Bonnie and Clyde. We know of Thelma and Louise. We also know of Léon and Mathilda.
Their relationship is all over the place throughout the film. Mathilda even admits that she may even be falling in love with Léon. Mathilda is twelve years old. Their relationship is more of guardian/mentor and student. Although, it is evidently more than just a teacher/student relationship. In their final moments together at the end of the film, Léon says to Mathilda:
This moment is more than just a heartwarming goodbye. It’s a final sign of growth and change in Léon. Mathilda came to him for help and for guidance; but she offered him help as well. Before she came into his life, Léon was simple, as I said. His life didn’t have much purpose, other than his violent profession. In fact, he didn’t care much to even collect the money he is owed. It is when Mathilda comes into his life, that he seeks his money and begins to plan on a “will” of sorts, that would send Mathilda his remaining money if something unforeseen would ever happen to him. Before her, he was just surviving. But she gave him a purpose. He learned to live. The ending of the film is both satisfying and unsatisfying. It’s unsatisfying because it’s — well, it’s sad. Its satisfying because of an iconic and perfect last scene. Following an explanatory speech to her school administrator, about what happened to her over the last few weeks, Mathilda plants Léon’s house plant in a yard, allowing it to finally grow and have roots. Like his plant friend, Léon never had any roots. He just roamed around, lived his life in solitude and never really committed to anything. At the end of the film though, as depicted in the pull-quote above, he expressed his newly found desire to have roots. He also left Mathilda his plant and asked her to take care of it, so in the end, she does something that she alluded to earlier in the film. She decides to finally give Léon’s plant the roots that he was never able to give the plant — or able to have himself.
Léon: The Professional is extremely engaging; some parts of it are even graspingly suspenseful. The combination of long, lingering intensity, accompanied by slow, evolving and dramatic music, work together to drag you into the story in a way that, at least for me, most action movies are just not able to do. This is likely why this film has survived the test of time and has become a beloved cult-favorite over the years. It’s fun, fast paced, action packed — it’s all of those things — but it’s also heartwarming, heart wrenching and at times, a real drama rather than just an action film.
This was also Hollywood veteran Natalie Portman’s first ever film. Barely a teenager, she was able to put on a dynamic performance showcasing her many talents that for decades now, we have had the pleasure of watching unfold and evolve on screen. Her emotional versatility and command of multiple scenes, at such a young age is extremely impressive. The rest of the cast, Reno, Oldman and Aiello are also very good in this film and play their parts well for what the film asks from them. It is Portman’s performance though, that has a spotlight on it for the entire film — and she more than delivers. As a barely teenage, first time film actress, Portman has the most attention on her, the most responsibility and shows the most emotional versatility, displaying a spectrum of different moods and tones in various instances of the film.
Again, although it isn’t an award-winning film and doesn’t display anything more than what it’s meant to; it does what it’s meant to almost perfectly. Most action films are unable to create a truly engaging film that make the audience connect with and really root for the characters. They usually focus too much on the action, and not enough on the story’s development, and the drama and emotions of the story. Léon: The Professional is able to balance the two elements elegantly, which is why it has become such a popular, engaging and strikingly entertaining film. Many films are better, but few films are more entertaining. If you’re looking for a film to kick back, relax and have fun watching, Léon: The Professional should be at the top of that list for you.