I admit that this one is a bit of a cheat – as film titles change a lot from country to country, Léon: the Professional or simply Léon is some cases is actually called The Professional is the States – but this is such a great movie I was happy to fudge on the rules a bit for it. Written and directed by Luc Besson, Léon: the Professional tells the story of the title character (Jean Reno), a mild-mannered loner who is the top hitman for the Italian mob. But when the neighboring family in his apartment building is slaughtered by a group of crooked DEA agents led by the psychotic Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), Léon shelters the family’s surviving member, the precocious twelve year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman). But despite the girl’s age, Léon learns quickly that Mathilda isn’t a normal kid and soon resolves to teach her his trade to help her on her way to finding justice against Stansfield for the murder of her four year-old brother.
A lot of people have issues with this movie and misconstrue its intentions, and understandably so. Besson’s first foray into making an English-language movie brought with it enough French filmmaking sensibility to keep it from resembling an American movie – in Europe, people tend to be uptight about violence and blasé about sexuality whereas in America its quite the opposite. With his previous film La Femme Nikita, its clear that Besson doesn’t have as big an issue with violence, but on the other hand he didn’t develop a sense of restraint when it came to the sexual elements of the story. Barring knowledge of some disturbingly risqué early versions of the script, a good many people have trouble overlooking Besson’s Nabokov-inspired relationship between Léon and Mathilda even though its more of a residual undertone and not an overt homage. Not to point fingers, but the kind of people who immediately see the relationship as being sexual are the kind of people who like to say that the brotherly affection shown between soldiers in war movies is actually a blatant display of undeclared homoeroticism – Léon and Mathilda are two people who have lived boxed-in, affectionless lives and, when they are together, project their subconscious desires on to each other; her projections are stronger than his for no other reason than she is a child, not because she is a Lolita. And this is the big issue: people are so apt to getting hung up on something inconsequential that they overlook the amazing action of this movie.
If you can see through the sentimentality (which I actually think rewards the story well, and as such I really enjoy), there are some truly great action scenes that blend fantasy and reality together seamlessly. The film’s opening action sequence, for example, is a favorite opening scene not only of action movies but of movies in general. Reno’s Léon moves like a ghost, picking off hired thugs in imaginative and often in an improbable manner – its one of the best character introductions this side of the Indiana Jones movies. The violence is frenetic, made of almost mythological action, both graceful and deeply tragic, with subsequent scenes throughout the rest of the movie that follow in kind like an artisanal multi-course dinner of murder and mayhem that include like Oldman’s Stansfield tweaking while on a shotgun rampage, the montage of Mathilda’s intro to assassination basics, or the one-on-two-hundred blowout at the film’s conclusion. With the exception of maybe The Fifth Element, Léon: the Professional is some of the best work that Besson has ever produced – after watching it again for this article, it made me desperately wish that he would make more movies like it (fingers crossed for his upcoming Scarlett Johansson film Lucy).