“Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl, is reluctantly taken in by Léon, a professional assassin, after her family is murdered. An unusual relationship forms as she becomes his protégée and learns the assassin’s trade.”

Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Staring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello
Streaming: Netflix
Release Date: November 18, 1994

Léon (Jean Reno) is a professional hitman for hire living in what he thought was a quiet New York City apartment. His lifestyle is quiet and subdued until he meets up Mathilda (Natalie Portman) in the stairwell. The young child has a charisma that charms Léon, and his immediate connection to her brashness is tested forthwith when he finds himself protecting her from the likes of crazed corrupt DEA agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Léon: The Professional (1994) is a movie about a unique relationship of love and mentorship. The main characters ensure that this surprisingly character driven action movie has moments that remarkably memorable.

There is one thing about Léon: The Professional that needs to be talked about. The relationship between Mathilda and Léon is unique, to say the least. The teacher and padawan relationship becomes nearly romantic. Mathilda even creeps out a hotel manager saying that Léon is her lover. What makes the relationship quirkier is the character of Léon himself. He is a man devoid of emotional connections but suddenly has one thrust upon him. He acts like a young boy in high school with a first crush paying him attention. And Mathilda, she treats is like she is an older woman who has been jaded before but knows what she is after and what she wants in a relationship. It is an awfully weird dynamic, one that Besson manages to make as awkward as it is meant to be.

It gets most awkward when Mathilda is describing how she loves Léon and how she feels it in her stomach. Director and writer Luc Besson decides to use a shot of her naked stomach and her touching it, which is innately intimidate. It breeds the question as to whether or not this movie with this relationship would be made now. It would be met with scrutiny, of that there is no doubt. However, it would be a challenge, and one I wouldn’t mind seeing another filmmaker take on.

Gary Oldman is the best part of Léon: The Professional. He is an absolute crazy person playing Stansfield. From his improvised sniffing of Mathilda’s father (Michael Badalucco) to his again improvised screaming of “EVERYONE” in the films most iconic GIF moment. Oldman has the knack to go crazy in certain roles but this one stands among the upper tier.

What a first movie and performance for Natalie Portman. She was casted when she was 11 years old, and for a young girl, she really grabbed the bull by the horns. Mathilda has a hard nosed exterior and a sense of drive that is unconventional for any character her age. The only time she cracks in terms of nerves is when she is waiting in front of Léon’s door after she walks in and sees her family murdered. Portman is acting with the innocent confidence of a child who seems like they know it all. You buy into Mathilda’s bravado because her life has been shit and Léon is the first person who provides a chance at home and a different life.

I have to admit that I have not seen a lot of Jean Reno individual performances where he is the focal point. In Léon: The Professional, Reno creates a character that is both simple and complex. On the side of binary Léon is a man of routine devoid of emotion. His simplistic mindset is partnered with an idea of paternal care non-verbally in the screenplay. Léon drinks milk and takes cares of a plant that he carries everywhere. He lives by a simplistic set of values and his desire to protect Mathilda begins with the “no women and no children” morals. Léon’s motivation to ensure Mathilda’s changes as her personality wins him over.

Reno’s best acted scene has nothing to do with the action. Mathilda asks Léon to play a game to take a break from their “practicing”, and soon a game of charades breaks out. Reno acts out uneasiness and awkwardness at not knowing many of the Mathilda’s acting, most notably the Marilynn Monroe performances. Again it is the toying of a grey area by Besson, but Reno’s acting allows a glimpse of innocence and naivety to slip in. Imagine if Reno didn’t act this scene out that way? It could have been viewed as predatory if not performed properly, but luckily it is far from it.

There are two shots in this movie that I really do love. The first is the shot Besson gets of Leon and Mathilda walking on the street after having the vacate their original apartment building. Using the incline of the hill to hit the bodies of Leon and Mathilda until they appear like a mirage on the desert.

Léon is no longer just a professional. He is a protector.

The second enjoyable directorial accomplishment from Besson is the entire barrage into the apartment of Mathilda’s father. It is brutal, violent and uniquely shot. The POV shots from the gun is a wonderful touch. The most distinguishing part of the invasion is how ruthless it is. We as the audience are introduced to the maniac chaos that is Stansfield. The reckless shooting, flamboyant movements and evil conviction makes him an ultimate wild card. No one can trust him, not even his cohorts. He is a loose cannon and that invasion scene is the first shot across the bow.

###Slight Nit Picks###

Besson used Léon: The Professional as a launching point for other projects. He directed The Fifth Element (1997) which has the same sort of cult following. Just looking at the filmography I have seen of Luc Besson’s work, here is where it ranks among the six movies I have seen.

  • Léon: The Professional (1994): B
  • The Fifth Element (1997): C+
  • The Family (2013): D+ – I don’t remember this movie at all.
  • Lucy (2014): B
  • Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (2017): C-
  • Anna (2019): C+

While I don’t think that Léon: The Professional is worthy of being the 31st highest rated movie on IMDB and an action movie classic honoree, the trio of Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and Natalie Portman make Léon: The Professional a very entertaining and pleasantly different type of action movie fervor.

STANKO RATING: B (3.0/5 Stars)


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