Professional, The (Leon) (United States/France, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The career aspirations of Mathilda (Natalie Portman) aren't those of the average 12-year old girl. Instead of wanting to be a doctor, fashion model, teacher, lawyer, or nuclear physicist, Mathilda has decided to follow in the footsteps of her best friend, surrogate father, and protector, Leon (Jean Reno). The only problem is that Leon is a "cleaner" -- a professional hit man ("Cool" is her one-word response when she learns this tidbit of information).

Mathilda comes from a very dysfunctional family. Her father is a drug dealer, his wife (played by Ellen Greene in a wig and performance that strongly recall images of Little Shop of Horrors' Audrey) despises her, and her half-sister enjoys beating her up. Mathilda's chief pleasure is hanging out in her New York City tenement building's stairwell, smoking cigarettes.

One day, a crooked cop (played with typical over-the-top exuberance by Gary Oldman) decides to have Mathilda's whole family exterminated. When she arrives home to find them slaughtered, she goes to Leon, who lives down the hall, for help. Although he's at first reluctant to open his door to her, once he does, she worms her way into both his life and his heart. And she's not some wide-eyed innocent; her desire to learn about killing is fueled by the need to exact bloody revenge for her little brother's murder (she could care less about the other family members).

In La Femme Nikita, writer/director Luc Besson proved his capability of putting as much octane and adrenaline into a thriller as any American director while keeping his formula uniquely non-Hollywood. Much the same is true of The Professional, which has sequences to rival those of Speed for white-knuckle excitement - not to mention a plot that's equally as preposterous.

The real strength of The Professional, however, is the central relationship between Mathilda and Leon. Although not well-founded in reality, these two characters mesh nicely. Despite an occasional low-key hint of sexual attraction, this is basically a father/daughter or mentor/apprentice relationship. There's nothing unique about a young girl melting the heart of a hardened loner except the manner in which Besson approaches the theme.

Jean Reno, essentially reprising his "cleaner" role from Nikita (where he was called Victor), plays his character with a perpetual deadpan (except when he lampoons John Wayne). He does more with mannerisms and body language than with facial expressions, and the closer he is drawn to Mathilda, the more uncomfortable he appears.

The less traditional role belongs to an impressive Natalie Portman, yet another member of the highly-talented, recent group of youthful actors. Portman portrays a victim of society's ills, the perfect example of innocence corrupted. There are likely some viewers who will be disturbed by Mathilda's predilection for profanity.

Because of the non-American flavor brought to this film by Besson, The Professional is anything but typical fare. It is stylish, darkly humorous, and almost artsy in its approach to the genre. Nevertheless, it delivers what viewers want from any thriller: lots of action. With some surprisingly strong character interaction, there's a lot to like about this movie, at least for those willing to look beyond all the bloodshed.

At one point, Leon comments to an attentive Mathilda that "the closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client." Through the intimacy of the link forged by Besson with his audience, there's no doubt that he's as much the consummate professional as his implacable title character.

Professional, The (Leon) (United States/France, 1994)

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Eric Serra
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1994-11-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: