In spite of ranking on the top ten lists of many, many movie fans since its release, my love for “Leon: The Professional” was not immediate. As a matter of fact I pretty much disliked it on the first and second outings because I couldn’t quite grasp what Luc Besson was going for with this film. It’s not an action movie, it’s more of a love story set to the tone of bloodshed and corruption, a subtle poetic masterpiece that relies on characterization and artistic strokes of pure raw emotion than some shoot em up gangster flick.
I grew up watching films from Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren so watching a movie like this didn’t click with me. Watching it again and again years later I’ve come to truly appreciate what a pure piece of brilliant filmmaking this is and the loose allusions this has toward another Besson masterpiece “La Femme Nikita.” Everything about this film from the performances right down to the set pieces are like pieces of moving art, and Besson is the artist with the brush. Very rarely can a film like this manage to suck its audience in and sympathize with its characters, but Besson pulls it off with pure ease. “Leon: The Professional” manages to center on relationships of both pure love and shocking dysfunction as our two main characters stem from lives filled with sadness and misery who somehow manage to find one another in the midst of chaos and evil. The great Jean Reno is absolutely fantastic as the mysterious Leon, a powerful if naive assassin who is a hired hand for a local mob boss named Tony.
His job is to get in, kill, and get out without even being seen. And his life is led like a literal ghost. He has no identity, he has no formal place of residence, and he wanders around waiting for his next assignment. On the side he feeds his love for classic films and has a strict moral code of refusing to kill women and children. He so happens to find a cause he can actually become involved in that gives his skills some actual contribution when Mathilda happens at his door one day. Out of the results of pure luck, she arrives to her house nearly avoiding a blood soaked massacre that takes the lives of her mother, father, sister and (in a shocking scene even in today’s society) her small brother. The reaction to this scene is overwhelming for the twelve year old and it’s one of the most incredible instances of tension and suspense as she evades the killers and pleads for Leon to open his door and let her in as she whimpers and literally begs for her life. Usually Leon would be prone to ignore the pleas for help, but this is not just an accident.
This is destiny knocking on his door, it’s his cause, something he can fight for that can prove he’s not just a crony killing petty thugs and mobsters. The relationship between the two is something of a paradox as Mathilda is a maladjusted twelve year old doomed to a life of crime who has seen too much violence and is not as experienced as she assumes, while Leon is experienced and has seen the world and yet is not keen on the specifics of interacting with actual human beings since most of his friends live on the screen in black and white. As their friendship blossoms, as do their personalities and they manage to bring something out of each other. Their relationship is much more complex than the average movie buff would have us believe as there are evident undertones Besson implants that begs the audience to interpret for themselves. Some declare the relationship between Leon and Mathilda as that of a father and daughter, a brother and a sister, and as friends.
But with brief instances there are hints of a more romantic sexual chemistry that is hinted at with instances of dialogue and looks from both characters. Nevertheless, the film progresses in to a tale of violence and revenge as Leon seeks to avenge Mathilda’s family while Mathilda descends in to darkness unaware of the battle for her soul that’s being fought between Leon and crooked DEA agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman is at his best), who is sadistic and erratic in every sense and is quick to kill anyone who stands in his way. Natalie Portman is one of the few cast members able to equal the strength of Jean Reno’s turn providing possibly the best performance from a child actor ever put to film. Mathilda is a multifaceted and layered character with genuine thoughts and feelings and a personality that’s both off-putting and enigmatic, which serves as no surprise why she draws curiosity from everyone she encounters.
Portman is just incredible here displaying pure raw talent whether it’s with small moments where she plays charades with Leon, to the climax where she pleads for him not to leave her. The story ultimately comes to an end as Besson never quite resolves the story and just continues following his characters on a path they may never be able to find, regardless of where they lay their roots. Besson’s incomparable film is almost impossible to beat and there’s yet to be a director who could match his magnum opus. Even after almost twenty years, “Leon: The Professional” stands as the superlative masterpiece of action filmmaking and has yet to be matched or toppled by any director in the business. Besson is a genuine filmmaker with a story to tell and for that he deserves a great deal of praise and respect as one of the few auteur left who brings more to the genre than shoot ‘em ups.