He’s a highly efficient—but in many ways naïve—hit man who drinks milk, exercises religiously and seems obsessed with the care and maintenance of a houseplant.
She’s a 12-year-old who smokes, curses and is wise way beyond her years.
Together they form an unlikely crime team in this fascinating and unusual look at the New York underworld.
Written and directed by Luc Besson, the French filmmaker who has built a career by combining Francophile introspection with over-the-top action, Léon: The Professional is a story about a heartwarming relationship that develops against a backdrop of murder, mayhem and corruption.
Spanish-born French actor Jean Reno plays the title character with just the right combination of menace and empathy. But Natalie Portman’s Mathilda steals the movie. She is, at turns, street-smart and innocent, sassy and naïve, offering a performance that is touching without being melodramatic. Mathilda’s seen too many bad things in her short life. And during her time with Léon, she sees many more.
The movie’s less than 10 minutes old when her father, stepmother, stepsister and brother are wiped out by a group of corrupt DEA agents in a dispute over a drug deal gone bad. Léon, who lives in the apartment next door, saves her life. Sitting in his shabby living room, she asks what he does for a living. But we suspect she already has a pretty good idea.
“Cleaner,” he says.
“You mean you’re a hit man,” she replies.
Mathilda, who wants to avenge the death of her little brother (she could care less, she says, about her abusive father and the stepmother and stepsister he brought into her dysfunctional family), asks Léon to teach her his craft. At first, he resists, but then agrees.
The American version of the film shows Léon training his 12-year-old protégé. The European version includes scenes in which she actually takes part in the work. At one point, she even chides Léon, boasting that she is younger than he was when he carried out his first hit.
“Beat ya’,” she says, as if she’s discussing some athletic accomplishment.
There is a tough, urban edge to Mathilda that comes out in the matter-of-fact way she approaches the murder-for-hire business. But there is also an innate understanding on her part that a 12-year-old shouldn’t be dealing with the things she has to deal with. Portman manages to convey all this in a stunning movie debut.
On the other hand, murder has always been Léon’s business. But in teaching Mathilda how to kill, he comes to appreciate the true meaning of life. That’s the irony in the story—and the heart and soul of what otherwise would be just a hard-driving action drama.
Film critic Hal Hinson, writing in the Washington Post, described Léon as “a poetic brute, a man without humanity who has lived so close to darkness for so long that he has lost all connection to the light. The universe around him, too, is a symbolic construction, an interweaving of opera, film noir and existentialism, where the larger-than-life forces of innocence and corruption explode in blood and violence.”
Mathilda brings him closer to the light, but also leads him to a new level of blood and violence.
There is the inevitable showdown between Léon and Stansfield (Gary Oldman), the leader of the dirty DEA unit that wiped out Mathilda’s family. Oldman, the quintessential bad guy, is once again a cinematic force of nature, a pill-popping, classical-music-loving psychopath who casually deals in death and destruction.
Both he and Leon have dealings with Tony (Danny Aiello), a mobster/restaurateur. Over the years, Tony has provided Léon with his work assignments while “holding” Léon’s money for him. The hit man gets $5,000 per body and has done enough work to fill a small cemetery.
Léon, who has lived a Spartan-like existence, has never required much money and has naively assumed that Tony has been stashing it away for him. At one point, he poignantly asks Tony to give his cash to “the girl” if anything happens to him. Leon may be the only one who actually believes that might happen.
Mathilda certainly doesn’t.
Léon: The Professional ends with one of the most violent shootouts in gangster cinema history, as Leon matches fire with nearly 50 members of an NYPD SWAT team under the direction of the amphetamine-amped Stansfield. Their final scene together is a classic.
Mathilda, with Léon’s houseplant lovingly tucked under her arm, manages to walk away from the carnage. No one else gets out alive.
HIT: Besson does a good job conveying the idea of Léon’s murderous work as a profession, a moneymaking proposition that has nothing to do with emotion. The character of Léon is almost mechanical—it’s not for nothing that hit men are sometimes called “mechanics.” And it is the juxtaposition of that life with the tenderness Léon comes to feel for the young girl in his care that makes the movie more than just another gangland story.
MISS: There’s a lot of outlandish action here and we’re inclined to just go along with most of it. Léon is a killing machine and the way he pops up shooting and dodging bullets is almost the stuff of a video game. But the one scene that had us screaming, “No way!” is when he busts into the DEA office in Manhattan to rescue Mathilda. Getting past security is just not that easy. And having a cab waiting for the getaway took things that much further over the top.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Mathilda is like no New York City girl-child I’ve ever seen riding the subway. And I couldn’t take my eyes off her. There’s a lot that’s rough and out of control in The Professional—Aiello is low on energy, while Oldman indulges in a performance so operatically unhinged you’d think the actor was galloping toward the playing fields of Mickey Rourke. But there’s even more that crackles here in enjoyable homage to the city that never sleeps.”—Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
BEST LINE: We’ve got a few. But two in particular capture the essence of the characters delivering them.
When Léon is explaining his job as a cleaner, he tells Mathilda that there are limits: “No women, no kids. That’s the rule.”
When Stansfield traps Mathilda in the men’s room of the DEA offices and realizes she planned to kill him, he pulls out his gun and confronts her. After popping a few uppers, he asks her if she likes life. When she says that she does, he tells her, “That’s good because I take no pleasure in taking life from a person who doesn’t care about it.”
But the best line may come during the final “conversation” between Léon and Stansfield. Without giving up too much, we can tell you that a wounded Léon hands the DEA agent a gift and says, “This is for Mathilda.”
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Reno made an appearance in Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990) as a “cleaner” named Victor. Like Léon, Victor wore a long wool coat, a knit cap and sunglasses.
GOOF: The private school where Mathilda eventually seeks refuge is supposed to be in Wildwood, New Jersey—a seashore town at the southern end of the state. But a scene from the school grounds shows Manhattan in the background.
CASTING CALL: Liv Tyler was considered for Mathilda, but at 15 was deemed too old for the role. The movie walks a fine line between Léon as father figure and Léon as potential sexual predator. When Natalie Portman tells a hotel desk clerk that Léon is her lover, we know that it’s outlandish and not true. This is in part because Reno plays Léon as naïve, straight-laced and mentally slow. The older Tyler’s presence would have heightened the sexual issue and distracted from the storyline. If she said they were lovers, we might have believed it.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Léon watches through the peephole in his apartment door as the corrupt DEA agents wipe out the family living next door. Mathilda, returning home with a bag of groceries, has the presence of mind to walk past her own apartment, push Léon’s door bell and quietly mouths the words, “Please open the door.”
With one of the corrupt cops standing guard and watching, Léon has to choose between letting her in and ignoring her plea—which, he and she both know, is essentially an invitation to death. He opens the door and lets her in.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: At the top of the charts. In part, because Léon is, after all, a professional assassin. But it’s exacerbated by the fact that Stansfield is a certifiable psychopath. Both are armed and extremely dangerous throughout the movie.
BODY COUNT: We got to twenty-seven and stopped counting. The finale features so much gunplay and so many explosions that it’s impossible to get an accurate total.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The aforementioned La Femme Nikita—which was written and directed by Besson—and its American remake, Point of No Return (1993), directed by John Badham and starring Bridget Fonda.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”