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Léon: The Professional (1994)

Léon: The Professional

1994 was a good year for film, both inside and outside the mainstream: Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Heavenly Creatures, Shawshank Redemption, Natural Born Killers, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Forrest Gump, Ed Wood, etc. At this point, the US independent movement that begun in the mid to late 1980s had become successful enough for Hollywood to take notice. Directors like Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Smith were snatched up by the major studios, and by ’94 the “Indiewood” style was in full effect. Their films now had big budgets, but retained somewhat of a more anti-Hollywood, boundary-pushing style. Sometimes it felt like they were trying a little too hard to be “edgy,” but other times it worked beautifully. The most important thing is that it pushed what was considered to be acceptable for wide distribution; films with themes and styles that previously would have been laughed at by the studios, were now reaching mainstream audiences.

Prior to this, it’s highly unlikely that a film like Leon: The Professional would have been seen in multiplexes across America. The film is violent, has ambiguous morals, a professional killer (who possibly has Asperger’s) as our hero, an outlandish villain that recites odd poetry, and centers on an uncomfortably close relationship between an unrelated pre-pubescent girl and middle-aged man. It’s in English and takes place in New York City, but is made by a Frenchman and has a more European sensibility.

The plot follows Leon (Jean Reno), a contract killer working for a stereotypical Italian-American mob boss (Danny Aiello), as he wanders the city, moving from apartment to apartment and job to job, unnoticed by the bustling masses. His only friend and constant companion is a potted plant (and his gun), until a neighboring family is murdered by a corrupt DEA agent, Stansfield (Gary Oldman). One child survives the attack, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), and latches onto Leon. The two develop and unlikely but deep friendship; Leon teaches Mathilda the trade so she can avenge her family, in return for her teaching him how to read. The sexual tension in the relationship is downplayed by the fact that both are presented as mental children forced into adult roles by their circumstances.

Even if the film starts to lose you, it is worth watching for the cast. Oldman is always a pleasure to watch, but more so when it’s an over-the-top, insane character (like in True Romance and The Fifth Element). He is one of the few gifted actors who can easily shift from playing it straight (The Dark Knight, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy) to purposely and beautifully exaggerated. Portman’s promise is shown in her first role; one in which she is portraying a young girl old beyond her years. Reno’s performance is nicely nuanced in the title role, it could have easily become a caricature in another actor’s hands; it’s a shame he has been relegated to bit parts in the US. The performances of the key three actors — the warmth of Leon and Mathilda, and chaotic energy of Stansfield — are what ultimately save the film from its faults, and make it an enjoyable experience.


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