Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994) occupies a very curious place within my sparse affinity for movies about urban decay and the sad, steady decline of western civilization. On a relatively minuscule budget of $16 million, Besson (who also wrote the screenplay) manages to evoke a highly stylized and heightened sense of uber-realism for this rank disillusion with, at once, a starkly cosmopolitan, de-glamorized New York, and yet, very urbane European sophistication that, at times, threatens to unbalance the more salacious aspects of this mostly grittier affair. It isn’t a stretch to suggest Luc Besson is one of those rare artists working in a medium so ideally suited to his tastes and passions, particularly when telescopically focused, that he can easily put most of his contemporaries to shame. Léon: The Professional is a miraculous achievement on so many levels it remains a humbling experience to sit back in a darkened room and let Besson’s storytelling wash over, shattering virtually every preconception made by the Hollywood establishment about the ruthlessness of a formidable paid assassin. Herein, Besson is admirably aided by Jean Reno – an almost Teutonic figure externally, beneath which there lurks the proverbial tender heart of gold. Reno, a gifted and sadly underrated actor, is at his best when he allows the audience into the head of his killer; the mechanic and deconstruction of his thought processes somehow revealed behind a casual glint caught in his eyes.
Like all creative geniuses, Besson illustrated an early flair – nee, contempt – for the rigidity of a formal education; his dream of becoming a marine biologist thwarted by an unfortunate accident, though nevertheless, later exorcised in his screenwriting/directing on The Big Blue (1988). Globe-trotting during his formidable years, Besson bounced from Paris to America, honing his intercontinental flavor, only to return to France and form his own independent production company, Les Films de Loups, later rechristened Les Films de Dauphins. In hindsight, Léon: The Professional is Besson’s ‘transitional’ piece; his breakout, as much as it continues to send shock waves throughout Hollywood’s depleted creative storehouses these days as a reinvigorated gemstone – fast on its way to becoming an ‘American’ classic. Léon: The Professional is an action movie – well, sort of. A ‘shoot ‘em up’ hitman-inspired comedy caper – almost. A buddy/buddy fable – perhaps – and an astute and unsettling romantic screwball; the relationship between its prepubescent moppet, on the cusp of becoming a full blown Lolita, and her inarticulate middle-age and paunchy would-be lover/assassin, contains the sublime texture of a slightly out of sync Bonnie and Clyde. Léon (played with eloquent cynicism by Jean Reno) is the perfect killing machine slightly gone to seed. Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is the urchin – without the usual ‘damsel in distress’ cliché weighing about her neck like a millstone, and, in possession of a startling resolve well beyond her tender, though as jaded, years. Mathilda humanizes Léon, reminds him he has the divine spark of a soul kept buried for far too long beneath his seemingly implacable exterior. Eventually, he comes to regard her with a queer disconnect between fatherly protector and romantic knight on the proverbial white charger. It’s delicious to watch these two disparate – and desperate - personalities go through their dance – coming together; an evolution of kindred spirits destined to be disheartened in the end.
This isn’t Romeo and Juliet…or is it? Transplanted to a decaying metropolis with its faintly reminiscent odes to Marty (1955), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and West Side Story (1961); Léon: The Professional is perhaps the most refined expression of mismatched lovers yet realized for the movie screen. It is always rewarding to be genuinely surprised by a movie – too few made in the past three decades have ventured beyond the confinements of their own ‘test marketed’ predictability. ‘Sneak peeks’ used to be about ‘improving’ the quality of a motion picture. Today, they have become something of a barometer by which all cinema art is being homogenized to resemble that which has gone before it. Besson’s movie is therefore, even more startlingly a breakout; defiantly apart from the rest of its ilk. The fact no film maker has jumped on the band wagon since, despite its success and popularity, is a testament to Besson’s own originality. This cannot be duplicated. Assessing the story on these few merits alone does the movie a great injustice. For Léon: The Professional is a bold and wholly entertaining experience; its' exceptionalism not immediately, or perhaps at all, quantifiable by dissecting the various parts that make up its' whole. Jean Reno, our titular hero, is oddly shaped and even more obtuse and solitary in his behavior and mannerisms. He is the ‘good guy’ – marginally – yet, trapped in a cold-hearted bastard’s profession. Here is a man of very few words, perhaps because he is unable to properly spell most of them. Yet, his sparse dialogue is so well placed and full of meaning that, once spoken in Reno’s inimitably thick accent, it demands our complete attention and absolute respect.
But the linchpin to Besson’s story is Natalie Portman, subversively engaging as the twelve year old, Mathilda Lando – 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), 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, already slightly gone to seed. Only Mathilda’s younger brother (Carl J.Matusovich) remains innocent. Thus, when Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his overzealous and corrupt goon squad burst in on the family while Mathilda is out buying groceries, riddling their apartment in a hailstorm of bullets, the girl vows to avenge her brother’s murder.
Léon Montana lives 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 hording Léon’s payments for jobs already pulled around town; working on his behalf to ensure 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 Léon 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 Léon’s gun. But Léon, 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, Léon empathetically takes pity on the girl, relents and shortly thereafter comes to regard her with tenderness.
Mathilda knows what Léon is and begs him on numerous occasions to teach her how to ‘clean’; her goal: to acquire an assassin’s skill and murder Stansfield. In return, she offers Léon her own survival skill set in trade; to look after him, his apartment, and, the one possession he most cherishes; a potted ficus Léon meticulously waters and keeps clean. After some initial reluctance, Léon 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. I find myself feeling ‘unclean’ in admitting that this moment had me genuinely amused, but there it is; Butler’s reaction to the ‘kill shot’ so utterly silly and fun to observe, my compassion instead immediately reverted to the pair on the rooftop – the assassin and his pint-sized would-be killer-in-training – rather than the targeted victim.
Not long afterward, Mathilda begins to develop a peculiarly sexualized attraction toward Leon. This, he unequivocally denies her; an honorable rejection to preserve what modicum of her childhood remains. Alas, Léon’s aloofness does absolutely nothing to dissuade Mathilda from her devotion – only slightly rechanneled as she increasingly becomes his accomplice on various adventures in crime. In many ways, the most rewarding part of their all too brief relationship is built upon Mathilda’s genuineness, her ability to quell Léon’s apprehensions about her participation as she lies to him about being eighteen; as though the age itself is enough of a demarcation for him to find her ‘acceptable’ as his teenage Lolita and killer’s moll. Earlier in the story, we witness Léon’s unique ability to suspend reality on his own terms; sitting alone at the movies in an art house gone to seed, running an old print of ‘I Like Myself’ – the inspired Gene Kelly roller skating solo from 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather (long overdue for its Blu-ray debut!). Miraculously, Reno exudes all of the wide-eyed optimism a child of Mathilda’s years ought to possess (but utterly lacks) as he basks in the afterglow of Kelly’s terpsichorean brilliance. By contrast, she is the more jaded adult in their relationship, stripped of her innocence much too soon and perverted by life’s hard knocks, eloquently realized in the scene where she tells a desk clerk (George Martin) Léon is her lover; a move that promptly gets them both evicted from the establishment.
Mathilda should be in school. Léon 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 Léon’s apartment. In the resulting showdown Léon aligns some fairly heavy casualties before being superficially wounded in the arm. Recapturing Mathilda from Stansfield’s stronghold, Léon forces her down a tight crevice in the wall to relative safety, along with his beloved ficus; in effect, realizing this is no moment for tearful goodbyes. Cleverly eluding the SWAT team assigned to take him out, Léon casually strolls toward the front door leading to the street. But Stansfield – who has never had a very good look at Léon – suddenly realizes the ruse and shoots him in the back several times. In response Léon, mortally wounded and lying in a pool of his own blood, gleefully detonates a pack of explosives strapped to his body, killing Stansfield; 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, Léon has indeed learned the true meaning of love. Mathilda escapes, tearful and still clutching Léon’s ficus 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 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 survival and living large with a paid assassin as her best friend. Accepted into the fold, Mathilda’s first act of reformation is to plant Leon’s ficus in the lush green backyard of the school 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 aberrant and perplexing aspects of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon, Léon: The Professional is an almost lyrical celebration of enduring devotion: an appreciation for the simpler affections that can dictate a heart deprived of its more lushly cliché daydreams. With this film, Luc Besson has indeed given us a strange new world to explore; an unlikely twist on the formulaic trek of his Don Quixote-styled antihero 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 in; his innocent exuberance at observing the aforementioned dance performed by Gene Kelly contrasted by Besson with the most unspeakable atrocities merely committed as part and parcel of his chosen profession, strangely with complete incomprehension of their severity. Mathilda, on the other hand, is incapable of seeing the world through anything but a fractured adult’s bitter eyes – her unsettlingly erotic desire for immediate sexual gratification misperceived as the very definition of adult love. In absence of this earthy fulfillment, Mathilda settles for the exertion of a great ‘adventure’ presumed, by following Léon on his bloody carnage. Yet, Mathilda is more than his faithful sidekick even as she forever remains less than his fully fleshed-out lover. Even more curiously, each brings out the very best in the other; in the processes, both learning the truer meaning of genuine sacrifice: enriched, even, and perhaps inspired to atone for some of their sins.
Jean Reno is infectiously engaging as the unassuming vigilante, grafted into Thierry Arbogast’s plush cinematography; itself, perfectly at odds, very stylish and eccentrically continental. Arbogast’s impressions of Manhattan look 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, Léon is an artist; weirdly charming. He paints in blood – marking his kills with a calm and calculated dispatch that ruffles the manic, DEA agent, Norman Stansfield. This freak show of a cop operates above the law in some pseudo-psychotic and drug-induced ether even his fellow officers (Willie One Blood, Don Creech, Keith A. Glascoe, Randolph Scott) find unsettling. In the final analysis, Léon: The Professional remains Luc Besson’s most exquisite and unpredictable charmer; an action/romance/buddy-buddy comedic tragedy. Most movies strive for complexity. Few achieve it. But Besson has ventured to be all things to all people and, with exacting precision, pretty much achieves his goal with a streak of brilliance even more rarely witnessed in our movies today.
Sony Home Entertainment has reissued Léon: The Professional in a peerless 1080p Cinema Series Blu-ray. As before, we get both the original theatrical and international cuts of the movie. The original Blu-ray transfer, now six years old, was simply gorgeous. But this new incarnation positively glows, allowing us to fully appreciate the vibrancy and detail in Thierry Arbogast’s starkly satisfying cinematography. Colors that were bold and fully saturated before, now sparkle with a refined and subtler tonality, attesting the delicate care infused into this 4K re-mastering effort. Flesh tones are ever so slightly more accurate; the subtleties and imperfections realized with stunning clarity. Fine details popped on the original Blu-ray release. Herein, they achieve an almost third-dimensionality; the ‘wow’ factor evoked in spades. Film grain looked natural before. Now, it benefits from an ever so slight refinement. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here.
The previous Blu-ray included a DTS 5.1 sound mix. The Cinema Series Blu-ray has been remastered in Sony’s patented Dolby Atmos 7.1; an ever so slightly smoother, more dynamic and immersive experience with exceptional bass. All the same extras have been ported over, including a trivia track and three behind-the-scenes featurettes, up-converted from SD. Included for the first time is the film’s theatrical trailer but gone are the international ad campaign galleries and isolated audio dedicated to Eric Serra’s memorable score); a genuine loss and shame. But honestly, why can’t we have more transfers of catalog titles like Léon: The Professional on Blu-ray? Sony has always illustrated a commitment to new media formats and their reinvestment in Blu-ray with these releases speaks to a consistent level of dedication hard-pressed to be found elsewhere in Hollywood’s present-day output. I’ve said it before, so I will say it again: it is high time the rest of the studios took their cue from Grover Crisp and Sony and began to realize time itself has already passed for getting their acts together in hi-def. Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal…is anyone listening?!? Bottom line: another high quality reference disc from Sony. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)