Sunday 6 May 2018

Movie Review: Léon: The Professional (1994)

A thriller drama, Léon: The Professional delves into the psyche of two lost souls to unearth the humanity within.

In New York City, Léon (Jean Reno) is a low profile but efficient hitman who fulfills assassination assignments on behalf of mafia front man Tony (Danny Aiello). Léon is uneducated and lives a lonely and well regimented life, his small plant the only thing he cares for. But he is friendly towards Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the 13 year old daughter of the family living in the next door apartment.

Mathilda's father crosses corrupt and psychotic Drug Enforcement Agency agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), and in the ensuing violence Mathilda's family is wiped out. She survives by taking refuge in Léon's apartment. The hitman is reluctant to take care of his unexpected visitor, but gradually they warm up to each other. She learns of his profession and insists that he train her to also be a killer so that she can pursue revenge. Meanwhile, she teaches him to read, and for the first time in his life Léon starts to care about someone.

Written and directed by Luc Besson,  Léon: The Professional features Natalie Portman's debut, an epic Gary Oldman villainous performance and an understated Jean Reno as a uniquely introverted assassin. With elegant action and character development mixed in just the right doses, the result is a captivating, and sometimes haunting, film.

Steering far clear of typical assassin characterizations, Besson creates in Léon an almost miserable man, a stranger in a strange land, out of place in New York City, unable to read, barely ever sleeping and living diametrically opposite from the glamour and riches often associated with efficient killing machines. Léon does not even care to receive the money he earns, Tony theoretically holding it for him.

Meanwhile Mathilda is suffering through her own hell, regularly beaten up by an abusive father who has gotten himself embroiled in the drug trade. Mathilda only cares about her innocent younger brother, and when he is hurt in the Stansfield-instigated bloodbath, the 13 year old girl starts to understand the appeal of revenge as a life calling.

Most of the film is occupied in nurturing the relationship between hitman and young girl, and Besson injects the full range of emotions. Léon goes against every instinct in his body to even open the door for Mathilda to escape with her life, and his second thought is to kill her why she sleeps to save both of them the trouble of creating a bond. From there they learn to care about each other, he assumes an imperfect fatherly role and she carries her infatuation towards a girl's immature ideas of love.

But with the out-of-control Norman Stansfield always nearby, the film is not short on action, and Besson includes plenty of exquisitely executed high-tension highlights, often in cramped surroundings, culminating in an all-or-nothing climax for all three main characters. Léon: The Professional is about learning to love, and plenty of education takes place under a hail of bullets.

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