Director – Luc Besson
Writer – Luc Besson
Starring – Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman
My next stop on my seemingly eternal voyage through IMDB’s top 250 films took me to Léon: The Professional – my third experience with the works of Luc Besson. After the first two were the bizarre and not-so-great Fifth Element (1997) and the absolutely ridiculous Lucy (2015), my expectations were not particularly high. As a result of this I was merrily shocked as Léon: The Professional far exceeded them, by being a visually appealing, well-written thriller with true soul to it.
Léon, the professional in question, is a ‘cleaner’, which is his term for a hitman. After Mathilda (Natalie Portman) sees her entire family murdered by a corrupt and psychotic DEA agent (Gary Oldman), she forces herself under her wing, and demands he takes him on as a protégée of sorts, so as she can prepare for her own revenge. Quickly, she falls madly in love with her protector, and he is forced reluctantly to form a bond of sorts, whilst trying everything within his power to keep things ‘professional’.
As the film pivots and hinges on the relationship dynamics between Reno’s previously cold and emotionally distant Léon, and Portman’s hot-headed and emotionally unstable Mathilda, it was integral that the two leads deliver performances of significant quality. Fortunately, both deliver in spades. Reno has always been a personal favourite of mine, and I don’t think he’s ever been better than he is here. He manages to perfectly portray the balance between icy killer and emotionally awkward human being. The juxtaposition between the cool professional who kills, and the awkwardly fumbling human being he becomes during anything remotely resembling human contact is absolutely wonderful and in turn creates an endearing character.
Portman, at the tender age of twelve, puts in arguably the greatest performance of her career, and, I do not hesitate to say this, potentially the greatest child performance I have ever seen. She is fantastically believable as a complex character, forced into an adult situation whilst still juggling with the naivety of childhood. It is a rough and violent coming-of-age tale and Portman delivers a performance far beyond her years, at the time, at least.
The ever-dependable Gary Oldman is also clearly having a blast here as the corrupt and deliciously psychotic Stansfield. Some may argue he’s chewing scenery, but if he is, then what he’s coughing back up is magnificent, so let him carry on chewing. All the performances throughout are magnificent, and none of the central characters put a foot wrong.
Besson’s directing is beautiful, as he gets everything from the visuals to the pacing correct, right up until the inevitable overkill finale. The cinematography is delightful, as it borrows lovingly from the best of the French New-Wave movement. A lot of extreme-close ups at the start give us a great impression of secrecy and privacy; and, as Leon’s ‘cover is blown’ the shots become wider and more revealing. It’s subtle and clever storytelling via imagery, and inarguably, it is what cinema was intended to be all about. It is stylish and effective, and thanks to a well-written screenplay full of emotion and genuine character development, Besson cannot be accused of ‘style over substance’. Everything is done for a reason, he never merely ‘shows off’. The score is also magnificent, in particular the Lynch-like ambient hum during our introduction to Leon’s world via the first ‘job’ we see him perform. It is incredibly intense, and that magical use of score has a lot to do with it.
Léon: The Professional is easily the best work of Besson since he crossed over into the mainstream eye, and is more than the ‘stylish thriller’ it has been touted as. It’s fantastically shot, wonderfully written and features a relationship dynamic that is as beautiful as it is potentially horrendous. And yes, let’s not forget that; this is a film about a young girl being taught how to kill whilst sharing obvious sexual tension with a much older man. The subject matter is, in that light, rather disturbing, but guess what? Film is art, and it has the right to push the levels of comfort, so long as it can remain tasteful. Léon: The Professional manages this careful balancing act and thus remains a stylishly shot thriller with a lot of soul to it.
Final Rating – 4.7
By Joshua Moulinie