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Film Review: Léon: The Professional

Léon: The Professional (1994; Directed by Luc Besson)

A slick and intermittently soulful action flick that repeats a lot of assassin-film conventions while also creating a few new ones. Director Luc Besson shoots his action with plenty of cocksure virtuosity and bravura, and his actors do an admirable job fleshing out the caricatured figures they’re asked to play.

I will show you how to clean a gun with a Q-Tip, THEN we can watch The Little Mermaid.

Jean Reno’s soft-spoken protagonist is the prototypical Zen assassin, drinking milk, exercising, tending to his plant, and occasionally venturing out to murder people for money. His simple sensitivity is supposed to excuse the moral horror of his profession; it would surely be much more difficult to identify with a hitman who wasn’t a monk-like ascetic with a proscribed moral code. The fact that we do identify with Léon is a credit to Reno’s performance but also to the topsy-turvy moral universe Besson gleefully creates.

On the opposite end of Besson’s inverted moral spectrum stands Gary Oldman’s corrupt DEA agent Stanfield, a pill-popping psychopath who revels in systematic cruelty. To call Oldman’s performance eccentric is a euphemism; to say he chews the scenery is a massive understatement. Stan is an entertaining villain in his batshit insanity, but he really represents what Besson sees as a corrupt government system that refuses to hold itself to account for its actions. Léon has a firm moral clarity that the official forces (which the unhinged Oldman represents) lack, a stark philosophical mandate that stands in sharp opposition to the contextless ambiguity of “the Man”. Stan seems to have unlimited power and capabilities, but Léon trumps him because he knows where he stands.

Between these two men, hardened in their specific stances, stands Natalie Portman’s Mathilda, a child with a difference. A darkly-nurtured Lolita figure, Mathilda has experience beyond her age; she’s seen too much to be a twelve-year-old but can’t overcome her body’s childish reality. She’s the obvious result of Besson’s amoral NYC underbelly, like Lord of the Flies smack dab in the middle of civilization. A role like this could slide into caricature easily, but the rookie Portman gives Mathilda astounding balance. She slips from innocent vivacity to jaded maturity with eerie ease. It’s an amazing child performance, largely because Portman approaches Mathilda as only half a child.

Her relationship with the stoic Léon has creepy undertones that Besson is canny enough to turn into overtones: he doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable suggestions the situation presents, but doesn’t give way under their awkward weight, either. Presenting the underaged waif as the sexual aggressor destabilizes our assumptions; Besson is relentlessly Continental in his abiding desire to the screw with American social mores (although many of the more challenging scenes were excised for the American release, undermining this effort). But, ultimately, nothing really happens, preserving this element as a questioning one rather than allowing it to become disturbing obscenity.

An interesting bit of action and suspense, then, with a more skewed moral compass than most American genre entries and some involving performances. This is hardly effusive praise, but considering the low standards of many action flicks in this regard, it’s notable, at the very least.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. April 10, 2012 at 8:24 am

    Thanks for your post “rosslangager

    Léon: The Professional (1994; Directed by Luc Besson)” it was a good read. I’m a real movie buff!
    All the best Gary

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