Léon: The Professional (1994)

Luc Besson | 1hr 50min

What does it take for a man who surrounds him with death to develop a taste for life? For hitman Léon, it is an image of innocence tainted by the world’s depravity, trying to become an adult at age 12 without realising how much of a childhood she is missing out on. Mathilda has never particularly cared for her abusive, drug dealing parents, but when her little brother is tossed aside as collateral damage in a bust by corrupt DEA agents, she becomes fixated on a mission of revenge, particularly directed towards the sinister, deranged Norman Stansfield. 

Léon may be the perfect man to help her manifest these goals, but Luc Besson does not condescend to his audience with such straightforward characterisations in Léon: The Professional. The dramatic interactions he delivers are instead equal parts thrilling, heartfelt, and thorny, unfolding a complex relationship between a hitman and orphan that ultimately offers them both steppingstones towards greater self-realisations. 

The cinematic high that Besson captures in his opening set piece may not be reached again, but the dexterity with which he directs Léon’s invisible takedown of an entire gang is nevertheless a captivating introduction for a man who lives life on the fringes of society. Rather than placing us in his point of view, Besson looks through the eyes of the thugs being taken out one by one in a grand hotel. The whole scene may as well be a short horror film with Léonas the shark from Jaws, going completely unseen and leaving merely the handiwork of his murders behind as the only evidence he was ever there. Eventually as he approaches the last one still alive, he emerges from the darkness like a bogeyman, striking an intimidating figure in his circular sunglasses and short, black beanie. 

It is a sudden shift in perspective that takes place immediately after this. The fear and tension built around the Léon we met at the hotel dissipates the moment we see him in broad daylight from his own viewpoint – a man living on his own, going to the grocery store like anyone else, and leading a meagre life.

It shouldn’t speak to the quality of Jean Reno’s involving performance that he comes off third best in this superb cast. There is something both tragic and magnetic about 12-year-old Natalie Portman when she first comes onscreen as Mathilda, holding onto a cynical wisdom that far transcends her years. Beneath the young girl’s talk of sex and murder is a mournful bitterness about her own lost childhood, activating a survival mechanism that forces her to live in a world of adults. 

It is evident though when she does come face to face with Gary Oldman’s chilling DEA agent that it is not something she is ready to handle at all. She may see herself as ruined, but Stansfield is a truly insidious and unpredictable force. He will pleasantly speak of his love for Beethoven as he murders a family in cold blood, before flying off the handle in uncontrollable fits of anger. Every so often, Oldman will pause to crack his neck mid-scene without explanation, and the effect is unsettling. Our two protagonists may be corrupted to some extent, and yet in placing them next to a villain as unredeemable as Stansfield, Besson thoughtfully lights up their individual paths to redemption. 

Even beyond the thrillingly staged action set pieces, Besson proves himself to be a skilled director of quieter dramatic beats, crafting a healthy balance of drama and dark comedy in montages that see Leon and Mathilda break into strangers’ houses to harmlessly practice assassination techniques. As the two social outcasts walk the streets of New York City, Besson’s telephoto lens compresses them against a blurred urban environment that barely pays them a scrap of attention, insulating them inside a bubble of both sharp pain and tender support. 

The pot plant metaphor which Besson closely identifies with Mathilda may be a little over-explained, but it nevertheless builds to a gratifying pay-off by the time she recognises her need to grow roots in an environment that can properly nourish her. It similarly holds symbolic significance for Léon as he grows to understand the value of tiny, delicate things which possess neither brute force nor indomitable will-power, but which hold great potential in their youth and malleability. A heavy aura of death may hang heavily over Léon: The Professional, though it is in Besson’s quiet celebrations of life where he lands his greatest emotional punches.

Léon: The Professional is currently streaming on Stan and SBS On Demand, is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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