Leon is a hit man, the best hit man working for Tony. He kills without a sound, without any emotion, he has only one rule “no woman, no child”, he’s the perfect hit man. Leon lives in the same building as Mathilda and her dysfunctional family. Mathilda’s father is a drug-dealer who does not care much, her stepmom does not seem to like her much, and her big sister seems to hate her. Mathilda’s sole solace is her younger brother, whom she loves very dearly. Comes in New York City’s crooked DEA, Norman Stansfield, who hired Mathilda’s father as a drug dealer. After the drugs are found to have been cut, Stansfield demands an answer as to how this has happened by 12 noon the next day.
The day goes as normal for Mathilda’s family, until 12 noon when Stansfield and his men come back and annihilate Mathilda’s whole family. Or so they think, until one finds frame with pictures of 3 kids. They realize that the middle child was not home. Mathilda happened to be out on a grocery errand. When she comes back, she sees that her father is dead in the entryway of their apartment. She avoids getting noticed and walks straight to Leon’s door. After repeated knocks on the door from her, Leon reluctantly lets her in, thus saving her life.
From then on, Mathilda sticks with Leon, who has told her is a cleaner, a hit man. Mathilda wants his help in killing the people who have killed her little brother by either doing it himself or teaching her how to.
After originally wanting her to go away quickly, Leon slowly learns to care for Mathilda and teaches her how to kill. This is as far into the story as I will go as to not spoil the entire movie for those who have yet to see it.
As most, if not all, of the movies written and directed by Luc Besson, the story is well written and developed, the characters are all either lovable or detestable, and the dialogue is never ridiculous or filled with high-brow language. His characters are normal, or normal-ish, people. As soon as she is introduced, the viewers care about Mathilda and eventually, Leon becomes a caring father figure to her and a character you care about.
Besson’s direction is impeccable as usual as well. Every scene has obviously been carefully planned and executed, every visual set up to bring something to the story, may it only be an emotion. The score, by Eric Serra (a regular of Luc Besson movies), bring the emotions and feelings to the forefront, but without seeming forced or exaggerated.
It is not trying to tell you what to feel but is going along with what the viewer feels, like all scores should. Only two songs were used for the soundtrack, adding the rare perfect touches to the core. Bjork’s “Venus as a Boy” is used in such a manner that it enhances the part of the movie it is playing as background music for. The second and last song is at the very end of the movie and over the credits. “Shape of My Heart” by Sting brings up the perfect swell of emotions to go with the ending of the story, which ends well but is not your typical “Hollywood” happy ending.
With the writing, directing, and score being so perfectly matched together, the acting could not be anything but amazing or everything would have been for naught. In the part of Mathilda is Natalie Portman starting her career with a big bang. This was her full length film debut and she gives the kind of performance we’ve all grown accustomed to from her.
What is most surprising about her performance is how nuanced and touching she makes Mathilda given that she was only 13 in 1994 when the movie was released. The part of Leon was written by Besson for Jean Reno, one of his regulars in movies he wrote and directed or simply produced.
Reno does an excellent job of making us believe in Leon. In fact, he is Leon, embodying him in every way. He gives the killer a sensible side that makes the viewers get attached to him. As the bad guy, crooked and crazed New York City DEA Norman Stansfield is Gary Oldman, giving an amazing performance, making you think that he might just be this maniacal man out for blood. Oldman shows in this movie how great he can be as a crazy yet fitting into society character. Besson later gave him the part of possible the “ultimate” crazy bad guy in The Fifth Element. The rest of the cast does great with each of their parts however small they may be, which I believe is a testament to the quality of writing and directing provided by Besson.
Now, why is this movie a must-see? The sheer quality of it should be enough. On top of that quality is the awesomeness of some of its scenes like the final showdown which is just breathtaking in its beautiful violence. Also, there is the fact that it is Natalie Portman’s debut movie and you can watch her act as well as her seasoned counterparts. If that is not enough, there is Gary Oldman, who everyone should love as an actor or at the very least have high respect for.
This movie is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with the works of Luc Besson outside of the movies he produced (The Transporter, the Taxi movies, From Paris With Love, B13, …).
Leon is a favorite of mine and many others. If it has not yet achieved cult status, it should soon. Leon is cool, he is even referred to in the Swollen Members song “So Deadly” featuring Evidence, when it goes “I’m the Professional, I always bring my plant”.
Lastly, if you can, find the extended, or European, cut with 25 minutes more footage which sets a completely different tone as Mathilda is shown participating in hits and flirting with Leon. Don’t get this last part wrong, this does not mean that Leon is a creepy old man, as he does not return her advances.
So, if you’ve yet to see The Professional or Leon: The Professional, do yourself a favor and put it on your queue, rent it, or buy it.