Léon: The Professional (1994) — I’m still confused on the ‘everyone’ note

“Is life always this hard, or is it just when you’re a kid?”

Justin’s rating: 3/4 a tank of gas – enough to feel secure and happy watching this flick, yet there’s just not enough to go all the way

Justin’s review: A quick test to a movie’s mettle is to glance on the box’s back and see what critics/columnists quotes were good enough to post on the box. You know you’re in trouble when you see “A tame explosive ride through the tumbleweeds of lust” by a Chinese fortune cookie. On “The Professional” box, a guy from the Entertainment Time-Out Syndicate (wha?) claimed that it “makes Speed look like a slow ride to grandma’s house.”

Who writes these reviews, anyway? Cheech and Chong? And what does Speed — a movie about out-of-control public transport — have to do with The Professional, which is about a hit man who takes in a girl who’s family was mowed down? Not a whole lot.

We don’t have to go far to find movies about “honorable” hit men and assassins who really and truly love their puppy dogs, but there’s a special spark that sets Léon: The Professional apart from the pack. It’s not hard to identify, either, as it’s the rather unusual (and oh-so-slightly icky) relationship between stoic hitman Léon (Jean Reno) and utterly lost Mathilda (Natalie Portman). When Mathilda’s family is cut down by a group of corrupt cops — led by Gary Oldman in an amazingly nutbar performance — she’s taken in by Léon for temporary safety.

But what’s “temporary” soon becomes a longer-term arrangement, as the young girl somehow convinces the hitman to train her in the art of assassination. You know, to protect herself and get extra credit at a very odd school. It’s certainly one way to learn the ins and outs of a hitman’s life, including his “rules” that he won’t break. But with the bad cops hunting down the girl, these two will find their newfound partnership put to the test in a most lethal way.

The Professional is one of those amazing ’90s movies that had a slow start but eventually gained enough momentum that it became one of those super-solid picks from the decade that everyone quotes. Perhaps Reno’s best movie yet.

Kyle’s rating: I love you, especially now that you’ve grown up, Natalie Portman!

Kyle’s review: You know, The Professional is a pretty cool movie to begin with. It’s on cable a lot, usually USA, and even with profanity and some of the extreme violence trimmed out, you’ll still be entertained.

The Professional himself is suitably wily and heroic, the bad cop (the always-superb Gary Oldman) is oily and relentless, and the young girl (ah, Natalie Portman) is innocence and need incarnate. But stripped down, this is like a modern fairy tale. The jaded but ultimately pure-of-heart hero must protect the fair maiden from the black-hearted fiend, probably at the cost of his own life.

Watch this without trying to reference other movies or pointing out familiar actors, and just try to get involved in the tragic triangle these three characters form and wonder how any of them can possibly survive the conflict. Didn’t mean to get so mushy, but this movie rules! Rent it now!

Clare’s rating: Of all the movies out there about lonely French hitmen forced to care for their spunky, abused neighbor children who want to avenge the savage murders of their entire family, The Professional is definitely my favorite.

Clare’s review: Although I thoroughly recommend seeing The Professional (for reasons explained below), I must even more highly recommend seeing the European release of the film which is called Leon. The differences between the two versions are subtle, but the European release is much more rewarding as the relationship between the two main characters, Leon and Matilda, is more thoroughly defined. Apparently a dynamic relationship between a 12-year-old girl and a grown man was deemed too provocative for American audiences even though the European release (which has been described as basically the director’s cut) is in no way gratuitous or overtly sexual.

When a young girl named Matilda (Natalie Portman) comes home from the store to find her entire family has been butchered by a pill-popping DEA agent (Gary Oldman — playing a wacked-out bad guy) she is forced to seek help from a reclusive and mysterious neighbor, Leon. In a scene that redefines the term “tension filled,” Leon is forced to decide if he wants to help her, and after an excruciating few minutes of Matilda desperately ringing his door bell, he throws caution to the wind and lets her into his apartment.

Now an orphan, Matilda forms an alliance with Leon that defies definition. It takes Matilda little time to figure out that Leon is a professional hit man and, with a lust for vengeance in her heart, she strikes a deal with him. She takes care of the daily chores around the house while he’s out “cleaning” in exchange for him teaching her the basics of his trade.

While the movie is really fun to watch for its suspense and action sequences, The Professional is basically a love story. A strange, confusing, very French love story to be sure, but a love story none the less. While the American release of the film makes it very clear how and why Matilda needs Leon to save her life, the European version goes one step further and shows us just how much Leon in turn needs Matilda to save his. He loves her desperately but would and could never act on his feelings except to protect her and teach her how to become self sufficient. The depth and breadth of his connection to her is spelled out in heart-breaking detail at the end of the film, which obviously won’t be described here.

In addition to the two lead performances by Reno and Portman, Gary Oldman’s performance is, well, a performance by Gary Oldman. I happen to think he was hilarious and twisted in this role, but it’s basically just a variation on a theme of every other character he’s ever played in any other movie he’s been in. His job here is to be creepy, soulless and insane. He does a great job. Also watch for Danny Aiello as Leon’s boss and long time friend who gives a very subtle and quiet performance that will sneak up on you it’s so good.

PoolMan’s rating: Will one line do it? Nope.

PoolMan’s review: I have a good friend Randy who has been lighting a fire under me for over a year to watch The Professional. Nary a phone call could I make to him without him taking some snipe about it. (“Hi Randy, how are you? Guessed what I watched last night!” “Well, I KNOW you don’t listen to me, so it couldn’t have been The Professional. Sniff. Sniff.” God, it’s like talking to my mom.) Randroid, this one’s for you.

There’s a permeating layer of dark sadness throughout this movie. The two central characters are some of the best-written I’ve seen in a while. Reno and Portman do a beautiful job of portraying two people, one older, one young, lost amongst the darkness of the underbelly of a corrupt city and their feelings for each other. How often do you get so caught up in characters in a movie about hitmen that you forget about the action?

And let it be said, the action is rare, but very cool. Leon is kind of like a scaled-down Batman to me; he blends with the shadows, obeys strong moral codes, and lives his entire life on edge, an assassin perpetually ready. His hiding places are unique and make sense, and his habit of sleeping sitting upright in a chair wearing sunglasses serves to bring out the calm readiness he always displays. Notably, his calm is only shattered when dealing with the remarkable little girl he’s teamed up with. He takes a bullet to the chest without complaining, but Matilda talks about her feelings for him, and he’s coughing milk all over himself.

Getting back to the point, I said there was a lot of sadness here. That’s because Portman does such a great job portraying her desperate character. You will pull for her at every corner, as her family is killed, as she falls in love with Leon, and as she pursues her brief career as a ‘cleaner’. I had no idea she was so powerful an actress at that age. Amazing.

I was a little displeased with the bad guys. Oldman is as intense as ever, but you can almost hear the writer’s trying to come up with a gimmick for him. At the start of the film, it is shoved mercilessly in your face that he is huge on classical music, and uses it as an accompaniment to his killings as he rambles on and on about which music he likes best to kill by. Fifteen minutes later, this trait is forgotten and just lays there, along with his inexplicable pill popping habits. The portrayal is great, but the character is not. His gang is a ragtag group of seemingly unconnected weirdos who serve no real purpose other than to shoot women and children. Dang. Although it IS quite funny to watch one of the bad guys nearly blow off his buddy’s head due to nerves.

I do have to admit, too, that the whole “He’s not my father, he’s my lover” thing threw me for a wide loop. Big one. What caused the spat? Maybe you have to have a daughter to know. Or maybe a seriously underage girlfriend. I’m not really sure. I have neither. This makes me happy. Happy is good.

On the whole, I am so glad I saw The Professional. There’s more to love than there is to complain about, and even those complaints are small. It was deep and involving, with wonderful character touches and some sporadic, nifty action. Don’t procrastinate like me, get it soon and check it out. Randy, you were right.

Didja notice?

  • Intentionally or not, there is one big McDonald’s sign when Leon looks out the window in one scene
  • Although it’s not shown very clearly, Matilda sleeps with Leon’s oven mitt, Mr Piggy, on the first night
  • A hitman working for a guy named Old Tony! Who woulda thunk it?
  • Milk: it does a hitman good!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s