Léon: The Professional (1994) Director: Luc Besson
I had a lot of fun with this French film. As the brainchild of writer/director Luc Besson, Léon: The Professional is at once an action thriller and a sentimental tale of love and fatherhood. Jean Reno plays an Italian hitman named Léon who meets a lonely and neglected girl living in his building named Mathilda Lando, played by 11 year-old Natalie Portman in her cinematic debut. Léon’s profession is harsh and cruel, but he is aging and finds himself without a family or purpose. In some ways his character is an echo of an earlier character named Victor in Besson’s earlier 1990 film, La Femme Nikita (also simply known as Nikita). Meanwhile Mathilda’s parents get into trouble with a band of corrupt DEA agents (headed by a sadistic madman named Norman Stansfield played by none other than Gary Oldman) so she begs Léon to take her in and teach her how to be a “cleaner” (or hitman). He reluctantly does so and the two develop a very charming paternalistic relationship.
This film contains a certain degree of Tarantino-esque stylized violence that is somehow still amusing and believable. We in the audience maintain a sense of bemused detachment to all of it except for the relationship between Léon and Mathilda which is bittersweet. In the end Léon very nearly escapes but he ends up sacrifices himself for the sake of Mathilda. If I have one piece of criticism of the film it is a moralistic one –I am generally not entirely comfortable with a pre-teen handling such heavy weaponry, and also the somewhat ambiguous relationship between Mathilda makes me a little uneasy. Léon seems to view her as the daughter he never had, but she seems to possess more romantic intensions. This is all coupled with several high profile accusations against Besson during the #Metoo movement (or in France the #Balancetonporc or “Expose your pig” movement), not least of which concerned his teenage bride and mother of his child (the age of consent in France is considerably younger than in the U.S.) nevertheless this dark backstory casts a pall over the film as we continue to gain the benefit of hindsight.