PG Cooper’s Movie of the Month: Leon: The Professional (1994)

Posted: May 31, 2012 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Movie of the Month

Release date: September 14th, 1994 (France), November 18th, 1994 (North America)

Running time: 2 hours and 13 minutes (Extended/International Version)

Written by: Luc Besson

Directed by: Luc Besson

Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, and Gary Oldman

When Leon came out in 1994, it received mostly solid reviews from critics and was a decent box-office hit. Today, there’s a large following of people who consider it one of the best movies of all time. It’s currently ranked 31st on IMDB’s list of the top 250 films. I saw Leon for the first time with my dad a few years ago and loved it. Since then, I’ve watched the film multiple times and after my most recent viewing, I decided it be perfect for my next “Movie of the Month”.

The film follows Leon (Jean Reno), a hitman (or cleaner as he calls himself) who works for local Italian criminal Tony (Danny Aiello). In an early scene, we see Leon is extremely good at what he does, to the point where he makes killing an art. When Leon isn’t killing, he spends his time working out, tending to his weapons, or visiting the local theater. In his apartment building, he lives next to a dysfunctional family. The father (Michael Badalucco) is involved with drugs with a group of corrupt DEA agents, led by Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). The father is suspected of taking drugs for himself, so Stansfield and the other agents raid his apartment and kill everyone. By a stroke of luck though, the youngest daughter Mathilda (Natalie Portman) survives. Realizing that if he doesn’t do anything she’ll die, Leon takes her in and the two begin to form an unorthodox relationship.

At its heart, Leon is about the relationship between Leon and Mathilda. Leon is a very interesting character. He works as a badass assassin, but his character goes deeper then that. His history is left a mystery for a large part of the film, and is only discussed a few times. I also like that he’s a character who keeps most of his emotions on the inside, and it’s only slowly that Mathilda is able to draw out his feelings. I also like how there are two distinct sides to Leon. When he’s killing, or about to kill, the dude looks smart, aware, and in control. But when it comes to normal things like relationships, Leon is clearly out of his element. He even seems a bit slow mentally. You get the feeling that deep down he’s a very lonely person. Jean Reno nails all of this perfectly and helps make Leon a very sympathetic character.

The other main character is Natalie Portman’s Mathilda. Leon was Portman’s first film and it’s one hell of a debut. She plays a character who needs to show a lot of things. She needs to show pain, fear, defiance, vengeance, love, humour, weakness, and a variety of other emotions. She has a lot of stand out scenes, such as the scene where she first discovers her family murdered. Recently, there have been a lot of girls in film who are also heavy into violence, such as Hitgirl from Kick Ass and Katniss from The Hunger Games. Those characters have their merits, but none of them capture both the killer and the girl nearly as well as Portman’s Mathilda does. This was an extremely risky role for Portman to play, and it’s something of a miracle a young girl pulled a role like Mathilda off so well.

Now that I’ve talked about them as individuals, I can talk about the relationship between the two. While the film never comes out and says one way or the other, it is implied that Leon and Mathilda’s relationship may veer into inappropriate territory. Mathilda frequently tells Leon that she’s in love with him, and makes several advances toward him. Leon seems uncomfortable with all of this, but whether that discomfort comes from him not wanting her or him wanting her but knowing its wrong is never stated. Some of the film’s critics complain that this relationship is too uncomfortable, but that’s the point. The relationship is supposed to make you feel uneasy and question the nature of it. It’s there specifically to challenge the audience.

How you view this relationship has a dramatic effect on how you view the film as a whole. Personally, I see there relationship as more of a father-daughter thing. Mathilda’s advances come from her being confused since the previous men in her life were all scum. Since I view the relationship in a more pure way, I’m very attached to Leon and Mathilda, to the point where I am very emotionally invested in the story. These are characters I love, characters who I want to see succeed. There’s also something about their relationship that I find strangely touching. Bottom line, these are characters that are well developed and that I genuinely cared about.

The last outstanding character in the film is Norman Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman may be overacting in this film like crazy, but man is it entertaining to watch. There’s something interesting about every line he delivers. Hell just the way Oldman moves is fascinating. Stansfield himself is one of the sickest bastards I’ve ever seen. Here’s a guy who takes perverse pleasure in killing others. “I take no pleasure in taking life from someone who doesn’t care about it.” He’s one of the most violent psychopaths I’ve ever seen on film. And yet, there’s something comical about him that’s hard to identify. He also has a bunch of interesting quirks, such as these pills he takes and his love for classical music. I love Gary Oldman, and this is one my favourite Oldman characters. Hell he’s one of my favourite villains. The rest of the cast is solid too. But it’s Reno, Portman, and Oldman that leave the biggest impressions by far.

Another great thing about Leon is the action scenes. These scenes are brutal, efficient, and extremely entertaining. There isn’t a lot of action scenes, but that way they don’t wear out there welcome. Action highlights are the opening assassination, Stanfield’s overture, Leon and Mathilda’s cleaning montage, and the finale. These action scenes are extremely well executed, and the fact that the story and characters actually mean something amplifies their effectiveness. But in truth, even if the story and characters were rubbish, I’d still be able to appreciate the action scenes.

Luc Besson directs the film with style. He gives the film an interesting tone in that it’s sort of a cross between gritty crime drama and morbid fairy tale. It’s very similar to what Nicholas Winding Refn would do with Drive seventeen years later. The cinematography is very good, and the editing always keeps things tense. I also love the music in this film. The score from Eric Serra is excellent and in my opinion criminally underrated. I also love the source music like the Sting song “Shape of my Heart”.

From the first time I saw it, I knew I loved Leon: The Professional. But it wasn’t until the most recent viewing that I fully realized how much I love the movie. There are some little flaws like a few convenient coincidences, but these are petty gripes. On the whole, Leon is a well written, well acted, and well directed film. It’s full of great scenes and one of the most unconventional relationships in any movie. For casual viewers, I’m not sure I’d recommend Leon. The unusual relationship and violence may be a bit too much. But to film enthusiasts, I strongly recommend Leon: The Professional.  It’s a great film, one I enjoy more each time I see it.

Rating: A+

PG’s Great Movies

Aliens (added January 27th, 2012)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (added April 28th, 2012)

A Clockwork Orange (added December 19th, 2011)

Collateral (added September 29th, 2011)

The Godfather Part II (added March 29th, 2012)

In The Loop (added November 26th, 2011)

Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 (added February 27th, 2012)

Leon: The Professional (added May 31st, 2012)

  1. It’s a great film; definitely a bit challenging for a casual viewer, though I think the fact that it is so highly ranked on IMDb indicates it’s not too challenging to be accessible. You’re right about the principal actors all being great; Jean Reno is definitely the centerpiece, but it wouldn’t work as well without Portman and Oldman.

  2. Love this movie, especially Gary Oldman’s hilariously over-the-top performance as Stansfield. If anything he made that character more terrifying because he was so unpredictable.

  3. It took me awhile to swing back to this, but I’m glad I did. Great job PG, you nailed this one. Reno’s performance is incredibles. So is Portmans. Fantastic story driven by great characters that create a ton of sympathy from the audience.

    As you point out, Oldman may chew scenery a little, but its definitely inttnional, and the character is fantastic for the movie. :D

    Nice selection, and nice write up. Great choice.

  4. vinnieh says:

    Great review, when I watched it I couldn’t believe that Portman was only 12 and delivered such an emotionally intense performance.

  5. Thomas Priday says:

    No, I was hoping you’d hate this film so I could give Tyson Carter (Headinavice) my pair for the Face Off series. :L

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