Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional (1994) occupies a very curious place within our collective affinity for movies about urban decay. On a relatively miniscule budget of $16 million, Besson (who also wrote the screenplay) manages a highly stylized heightened sense of ultra-realism that is at once starkly cosmopolitan - with its de-glamorized New York settings - and yet very urbane a la some European sophistication that, at times, threatens to unbalance the more salacious aspects of this mostly grittier affair.
It’s an action movie – well, sort of. A shoot ‘em up hit man inspired comedy caper – almost. A buddy/buddy story – kind of – and an astutely queer romantic comedy; the relationship between its prepubescent moppet on the cusp of becoming a full blown Lolita and her inarticulate middle-age would be lover/assassin generating the sublime narrative texture of a slightly out of sync Bonnie and Clyde. He’s the perfect killing machine who meets his match in this urchin. She introduces him to rawer human emotions otherwise absent from his perfectly aloof disconnect with the outside world.
Assessing the story on these few merits alone does the movie a feeble injustice. For Leon: The Professional is a bold and wholly entertaining experience; its exceptionalism not quantifiable by dissecting the various parts that make up its whole. Jean Reno is our titular hero; oddly shaped and even more obtuse in his behavior and mannerisms. He is a good guy – marginally - but trapped in a cold-hearted bastard’s profession. He is a man of few words, perhaps because he is unable to properly spell any of them, yet with dialogue so well placed and full of meaning that once spoken in Reno’s inimitable heavy accented style it demands our complete attention and total respect.
This unassuming vigilante is grafted into Thierry Arbogast’s plush cinematography; itself very elegant and eccentrically continental. Arbogast’s New York looks almost Parisian, its seedy apartments and dirty little eateries suckling the Bohemian sophistication of a curbside café and artists’ l’atelier in Montmartre. In a way, Leon is an artist; lyrical and weirdly charming. He paints in blood – marking his kills with a calm and calculated dispatch that ruffles manic DEA agent, Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). This freak show of a cop operates above the law in some pseudo-psychotic drug induced ether that even his fellow officers (Willie One Blood, Don Creech, Keith A. Glascoe, Randolph Scott) find unsettling.
But the linchpin in Besson’s story is 12 year old Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman) – a chain-smoking delinquent with a child’s view of obsessive love and a tart’s appreciation for destructive male/female relationships, gleaned from the current chaos inhabiting her own home life. Her father (Michael Badalucco) is a small time cocaine dealer. Her mother (Ellen Greene) is something of an unapologetic prostitute who occasionally works off her own sexual frustrations in the bathroom. Mathilda’s sister (Elizabeth Regen) is a narcissistic bitch, obsessing over her body that is already slightly gone to seed. Only Mathilda’s younger brother (Carl J.Matusovich) remains innocent. Thus when Stansfield and his men burst in on the family while Mathilda is out buying groceries, and riddle the apartment in a hailstorm of bullets, the girl vows to avenge only her brother’s murder for the atrocity of their cumulative slaughter.
Leon lives only two doors down from Mathilda. He works as a ‘cleaner’ for Tony (Danny Aielo); a mafia-style hood operating out of his gaudy pizza joint in Little Italy without even a casual thought for fear of incrimination. Tony is constantly telling Leon that he is hording his payments for jobs already pulled around town; working on his behalf to ensure that the money remains safe and easily accessible. So far, so good – except that within two minutes of being introduced to this character even the audience knows Tony has little – if any – intention of ever rewarding Leon for his expert marksmanship in any concrete way beyond keeping him on a very tight and exceptionally short leash. Even so, Tony is never condescending to his trained man, perhaps because deep down he knows one false move could land him with a bullet between the eyes from Leon’s gun. But Leon, despite his profession, is a man of personal integrity. Thus, when Mathilda pleads with him to take her in after witnessing the annihilation of her entire family Leon sympathetically relents and shortly thereafter comes to regard Mathilda as an integral part of his private life.
Mathilda knows what Leon is and begs him on numerous occasions to teach her how to ‘clean’. Her goal is to acquire an assassin’s skill and murder Stansfield. In return she offers Leon her own survival skill set in trade; to look after him, his apartment and the one possession most cherished in his life; a potted fichus that Leon meticulously waters and keeps clean. After some initial reluctance, Leon takes his young charge to the roof of an apartment overlooking Central Park. His high powered rifle loaded with harmless squibs, Leon shows Mathilda how to ‘shoot’ a moving target: an unsuspecting jogger (David Butler) who rather humorously collapses from fright rather than imminent harm after Mathilda’s well-placed squib spatters his chest in red dye.
Not long afterward Mathilda begins to develop a peculiarly sexualized attachment toward Leon. This he unequivocally denies her; an honorable rejection to preserve what little modicum of her childhood remains. But Leon’s aloofness does absolutely nothing to dissuade Mathilda from her devotion – only slightly rechanneled as she increasingly becomes his accomplice on various assassination adventures. In many ways the most rewarding part of their all too brief relationship is at hand. To quell his apprehensions about her participation in these crimes Mathilda tells Leon she is eighteen – an obvious lie that he nevertheless chooses to believe.
Earlier in the story we’ve seen Leon’s ability to suspend reality on his own terms; sitting alone at the movies – an art house gone to seed, running an old print of ‘I Like Myself’ – the inspired Gene Kelly roller skate solo from MGM’s It’s Always Fair Weather. Here, Reno manages to exude all of the wide-eyed optimism a child of Mathilda’s age ought to possess. Instead, she is more the adult in their relationship, unapologetically perverse as she tells the desk clerk (George Martin) at their latest rental that Leon is her lover; a move that promptly gets them both broomed from the establishment.
Mathilda should be in school. Leon knows this but is unable to convince her of as much. In response to the killing of one of his men, Stansfield lowers the boom on the pair by kidnapping Mathilda and launching into a full blown assault on Leon’s apartment. In the resulting showdown Leon aligns some fairly heavy casualties before being superficially wounded in the arm. Recapturing Mathilda from Stansfield’s men, Leon forces her down a hole in the wall to safety, along with his beloved plant, in effect realizing that this is no moment for tearful goodbyes. Cleverly eluding the SWAT team assigned to take him out, Leon casually strolls toward the front door leading to the street.
But Stansfield – who has never had a very good look at Leon – suddenly realizes the ruse and shoots him in the back several times. In response Leon, mortally wounded and lying in a pool of his own blood, gleefully detonates a pack of explosives strapped to his body, killing Stansfield and thus avenging the murders of Mathilda’s entire family, but also sparing her from the opportunity to become a cold-blooded killer like himself. In these final moments Leon has indeed learned the true meaning of love. Mathilda escapes, tearful and still clutching Leon’s plant as she runs down the alley and back to Tony’s restaurant. Despite her training, and her obvious innate ability to handle a gun, Tony orders Mathilda out of his place.
With nowhere else to go, Mathilda returns to the orphanage/school that her father threatened to send her away earlier; a pastoral and gated institution run by a kindly matron (Betty Miller) who miraculously believes Mathilda’s fantastic story of surviving certain death and living large with a paid assassin as her best friend. Accepted into the fold, Mathilda’s first act of reform is to plant Leon’s fichus in the lush green backyard where it will likely thrive and continue to remind her of their enduring friendship.
Given the harshness of its subject matter and the even more aberrantly perplexing aspects of the relationship between Mathilda and Leon – as mismatched a pairing as any to appear on the big screen - Leon: The Professional is an almost lyrical celebration of enduring devotion: an appreciation for the simpler affections that can dictate a heart deprived of more lushly clichéd daydreams. With this film Besson has indeed given us a strange new world to explore; an unlikely twist on the formulaic trek of a Don Quixote styled hero and his infantile Dulcinea.
Neither Leon nor Mathilda is a whole person. He suffers from an incurable developmental stunting that allows for a child’s wonderment to creep and buy into the innocence of a Gene Kelly movie while committing the most unspeakable atrocities as his chosen profession, but with complete incomprehension of their severity. She is incapable of seeing the world through anything but a fractured adult’s bitter eyes – longing for immediate sexual gratification misperceived as the very definition of pure adult love. In absence of this fulfillment Mathilda settles for the great adventure of following Leon on his bloody carnage. But she is more than his faithful sidekick even as she forever remains less than his fully fleshed lover. Together each brings out the best in the other. Both learn the true meaning of sacrifice and are enriched and perhaps even inspired to repair at least some of the loneliness in their sins.
Sony Home Entertainment offers a 1080p hi-def transfer that is simply gorgeous. Leon: The Professional positively glows, allowing us to fully appreciate the vibrancy and detail in Thierry Arbogast’s starkly beautiful cinematography. Colors are bold and fully saturated. Flesh tones appear very accurate and fine detail is startling in clothes, hair and background information. The ‘wow’ factor is here in spades. Grain has been faithfully reproduced and contrast levels are bang on. Quite simply, there’s absolutely nothing to complain about here.
The 5.1 DTS audio packs a wallop, elevating the action sequences into a wholly immersive and spatially sonic listening experience. Bass is strong but not excessive. Dialogue is well placed and very natural sounding. Honestly, why can’t we have more transfers like this on Blu-ray? The answer is rather tragically simple; lack of time, money and patience. Extras include a ten year retrospective and three brief featurettes on Reno, Portman and the making of the film. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)