Gangster Movie Month: "Leon: The Professional" Review

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Gangster Movie Month: "Leon: The Professional" Review

-- Rating: R (language and graphic violence)
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 1994
Directed by: Luc Besson
Genre: Drama/Crime/Thriller

Featuring an award-winning cast and introducing future star Natalie Portman, "Léon: The Professional" is a dark, gritty look at what happens when an assassin gets too involved with the affairs of his neighbors. Léon is a cleaner who hires out his skills to the mafia in the Little Italy district of New York City. European actor Jean Reno brings a brilliant and moody approach to the character of Léon, which is no surprise to fans of Reno's work in films like "Ronin."

Among Léon's neighbors is Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl with a rough family life. Léon's first glimpse of the girl gives the viewers a lot of information: she's sporting a black eye and smoking-evidence of her dysfunctional home life. Mathilda is played by a very young Natalie Portman. Seven years before garnering awards with her performance in "Black Swan," Portman delivers an engaging and stunning performance in "Léon: The Professional."

After a rudimentary introduction to characters, the film's action begins when Mathilda's father finds himself on the wrong side of a group of corrupt DEA agents. The agents have been paying him to stash drugs, but he's been stealing from them to make ends meet. The group of agents attacks the family's apartment, poorly disguising the assault as a raid. They murder Mathilda's entire family, including her four-year-old brother, but Mathilda's life is spared, as she is out shopping.

When Mathilda returns home, she discovers the slain bodies and state of the apartment. In another testament to her nonexistent childhood, the preteen simply leaves the apartment and seeks refuge down the hall with the enigmatic Léon. Here, Natalie Portman's early acting skills become apparent. Jean Reno delivers a characteristically serious and sweeping performance, which any experienced actress may find hard to complement. Portman manages to combine streetwise depth with childhood innocence to create a character that not only shines under the darkness of Reno's shadow, but, at times, threatens to upstage him.

If "Léon: The Professional" were simply a development of the relationship between Léon and Mathilda, it would be worth watching as a character study. Add in a villain who is both a corrupt cop and a drug addict, and the capacity for entertainment grows exponentially. This is especially true because the ragged villain-Norman Stansfield-is played by the ever-odd Gary Oldman, who seems to seek out these types of roles. Oldman provides a dynamic and desperate villain to offset Léon's growing heroism throughout the film.

Mathilda is grieving the loss of her little brother, who was killed in the slaughter of her family. When she finds out that Léon is a hitman, she convinces him to help her seek revenge. Mathilda doesn't want Léon to kill Stansfield; she wants Léon to teach her how to kill the corrupt agent. Mathilda's attempt fails and Léon's actions to save her result in a small war between the hitman and Stansfield's cadre of corrupt agents. During all of the action, Mathilda develops a crush on Léon, and the hitman begins to develop fatherly feelings toward his unconventional charge. After living a life of loneliness, Léon may find redemption in his sudden relationship with Mathilda.

"Léon: The Professional" is a fast-paced film with introspective moments. It delivers a style that has become synonymous with Luc Besson movies. Besson also worked on the "Transporter" and "Taken" franchises, as well as the 1990s "La Femme Nikita" television series. "Léon: The Professional" also includes notable performances from Danny Aiello, Peter Appel, Don Creech, and Michael Badalucco.

The flick is not an appropriate selection for family movie night, as it is fraught with gritty and graphic violence. However, those who enjoy action films with a darker, more realistic flavor may find this worth a rental or spot in their video collections. Fans of movies like "Ronin," "The Departed," "Donnie Brasco," and "Training Day" may find "Léon: The Professional" enjoyable.

Besson avoids a trite happily-ever-after ending, so don't expect Mathilda and Léon to solve all their problems and move into the suburbs where he becomes her uncle and they lead a normal life. Instead, "Léon: The Professional" delivers the heart-wrenching story of an assassin who only comes to life when he channels his deadly skills to attempt to save the life of someone he comes to care about. "Léon: The Professional" is worth all 110 minutes for its detail-centric action scenes and superb performances from Reno, Portman, and Oldman.

Rating: 4 out of 5