A film review by Craig J. Koban




10th Anniversary Retrospective Review  

1994 U.S. cut, R, 123 mins.  jj

2004 International cut, R, 138 mins. jjj

Stansfield:  Gary Oldman / Matilda:  Natalie Portman / Leon: Jean Reno
Tony: Danny Aiello

Directed by Luc Besson

Luc Besson’s 1994 action film, THE PROFESSIONAL, was a picture that I did not like.  It’s a bit amazing, but I really loved  Besson’s LEON, the same film with a different title and 26 minutes of crucial footage added back in. 

The new director’s cut version, which was released to French cinemas on June of 1996, was so much better that it really made me stand up and bare witness to the power that editing has to the cadence, flow, and overall effectiveness of a film.  Editing has always been the least appreciated facet of the filmmaking process, but with LEON it clearly shows how integral material that was once excised from a film can really improve the final product. 

I remember THE PROFESSIONAL (its US release title) as being a stylized action picture with a lot of visual wit, fine performances, and a lot of dark humor.  It was also populated by good actors,  like Jean Reno, the great Gary Oldman, and, most notably, the then 12-year-old Natalie Portman in a career high piece of acting (she has yet to top it).  Yet, that 1994 film felt a bit shallow and lacked  real depth into the relationship between the lonely hitman and the young street girl he befriends.  The newer 1996 European cut adds so much more to their relationship and fleshes it out much more fully.  LEON not only reveals itself to be a great action film, but a sort of LOLITA-esque drama that plays on the frank sexual tension between Portman and Reno. 

Luc Besson has always been an accomplished director, and some of his finest work occurred early in his career.  His LA FEMME NIKITA from 1992 was a gripping and well-directed effort of a street girl who turned herself into a professional assassin.  It seemed only fitting that his follow-up film would tread the same waters.  THE PROFESSIONAL too is about the seedy world of professional killers, hitmen, cleaners, whatever term you think is wise to use.  The only fundamental difference between the two is the obvious shock value.  The protagonist in NIKITA was a woman.  One of the protagonists in LEON is not even a teenager, but a troubled 12 year old who becomes attracted to and falls in love with a much older “cleaner”. 

THE PROFESSIONAL was, more or less, an action film with great eye candy.  LEON, rather, develops the relationship between the girl and hitman and does not shy away from some of the more overt and indirect sexual dimensions that their twisted relationship displays.  In a way, the film plays like some sort of tragic, twisted love fantasy where the girl seems to have some, but not all, of her vented up desires come to fruition.  THE PROFESSIONAL seems to exploit the young girl to shun the viewers. LEON seems to deal with the tragedy and troubled lives of the characters in a much more direct way. 

LEON opens with a scene of tension and style.  We see the hitman Leon (played with a great amount of reserved and cool charisma by Jean Reno) on the job, and to say that he is a lethal and perversely effective hitman would be an understatement.  He receives his orders from a local Italian mob boss played by Danny Aiello.  We then follow Leon in a virtuoso set of action scenes where Besson demonstrates what a gifted visualist he is.  He also is able to command a great of amount of respect in the arena of pacing and editing, as the opening minutes have the strength of many similar scenes that would have provided the conclusions of many lesser films.  Leon is calculating and exact, and the opening scenes clearly do a good job of establishing his character.  Leon may be one of the silver screen’s most effective of recent hitmen, but he also has a softer side.  He is lonely, depressed, and, as a scene later reveals, has deep emotional wounds.  He kills without prejudice and has a determination and keen sense of confidence in his own work, but when he’s done a job, he basically just a loner who’s so buried in his work that he forms no human ties of any kind.  He has his job, his shady apartment, and his plants to keep him company.  He never drinks, never engages in anything remotely illegal outside of his job.  He’s a quintessential drifter, a man that’s melancholy about who he is and what life means. 

That is, of course, until he meets Matilda.

Matilda may just be one of the more unusual 12-year-old misfits in recent movie memory.  She, like Leon, is lonely, despaired, and emotionally troubled.  Yet, she is also head strong, resourceful, confident (if not a bit cocky and naïve),  and kind of wise beyond her years, not unlike Jodie Foster's character in TAXI DRIVER.  Matilda too, like Foster’s character, has a predilection for profanity and sexual frankness.  She’s a 20 year old trapped in a 12-year-old body, which provides for some of the film’s more overt and somewhat controversial themes.  She is really a figure of an extreme loss of innocence, and one where her childhood has been corrupted into something even more obscene.   

One day, during a particular morning, Matilda wakes up and goes about her usual day.  She sort of befriends Leon in the hallways of the apartment building where they both live.  She likes Leon, even to the point of attraction.  One day she decides to run a grocery errand for the quiet mannered hitman.  While she is gone, a corrupt DEA enforcer named Stansfield (played with great theatrical effectiveness by Gary Oldman) and his goon squad go into Matilda’s apartment and murders her entire family.  Matilda manages to escape the scene of intense carnage, but Stansfield learns of her existence and searches for her to exterminate her and keep her quiet.  Matilda has a plan of her own.  She discovers the true world that Leon occupies and after he saves her life, she asks for his aid in killing her family’s murderers.  Of course, she does not have money, but she does offer to do his laundry, clean his apartment, and do any menial chores he wants done.  Leon, thankfully at first, wants nothing at all to do with this street girl, but Matilda is a tough figure to get rid of easily.  She becomes so attached emotionally to Leon that she refuses to leave his side and, whether he likes it or not, becomes an odd fixture in his world.  Leon, eventually, grudgingly agrees to teach Matilda the basics of “cleaning” after she convinces him of her worthiness. 

The real core of the film is the relationship between the drifter girl and the older, wiser, and lonelier LEON.  They start off having more of a father/daughter or mentor/student relationship, but this later develops into moments of slight, but evident, sexual attraction.  This is not a film about child abuse in the literal definitions, and Leon is not so disheartening that he takes advantage of the younger Matilda.  The two characters, rather, mesh together, as Leon’s dark and violent world feeds Matilda’s sexual attraction for him.  Leon, being a realist, knows damn well that they can never have a sexual relationship, but he nevertheless has feelings for the girl that are, oddly, quite fatherly without being altogether platonic.  Besson films their scenes with several moments of awkward sexual tension, and many of these moments play out in the same sort of way that a man and his wife or girlfriend would.  They are the oddest of odd couples. 

It’s a film of rich, yet troubling, social interactions.  It kind of achieves the impossible – you never really feel like the young Matilda is being abused by Leon; rather, they both are willing participants in each other’s worlds.  Leon may have been the worst thing for Matilda, but Matilda was the best thing to happen to Leon.  Underneath their remarkably offbeat and reprehensible relationship lies real warmth.  LEON is, despite the tremendous age gap of its two leads, a sensitive love story, one that is about people who have seen sights most people would never want to see, but need each other for emotional stability.  Leon and Matilda, in eerie ways, save each other. 

The original 1994 film sort of felt much safer and reserved with the material of the young girl and aging hitman, and its truncated running time proves this point completely.  Most, if not all, of the sexual dynamic between Matilda and Leon is ostensibly gone from this cut.   The original cut had a disastrous test screening in Los Angeles in 1993, which eventually led to the studio dissecting the film and trimming away all of the rich (and oftentimes, shocking) character building scenes of the two.  Thankfully, the European Director’s Cut restores all of this footage.  Its amazing what it adds to the film, as it builds on the characters and reveals more depths to their relationships that most American audiences, probably, were not prepared for.  

The newer cut not only features extended training scenes with Leon and Matilda, but also restores moments that isolates the awkwardness of their relationship.  There is one moment where Matilda plays a game of Russian Roulette with a gun to prove her worth and love to Leon, and yet another where the two discuss sex in ways that most 12 year old girls do not to 40 year old men.  That scene has Matilda offering herself for sex with Leon, which Leon flatly refuses.  Interestingly, he does not refuse for the obvious reasons.  When she asks if it’s another woman or if it’s her, he never elicits a response to her that indicates that it’s primarily about age. 

If that scene was not chilling enough, a restored scene where Leon takes Matilda on a practice hit is even more disturbing, if not a bit darkly comic.  She “hits” the target with a paint gun, but after Leon officially takes care of the target, he instructs Matilda that she needs to aim more for the heart and lungs of her enemies in the future.  That moment has a depravity and sense of offbeat, irreverent humor.  It’s kind of analogous to a father instructing his son/daughter how to properly swing a bat to hit a baseball.  The only difference with LEON, of course, is that his teaching involves murder.  I love how LEON never is shy about their underlining seediness and problematic relationship…it revels in it.  This was kind of missing in THE PROFESSIONAL, which is so much more reserved in its characters. 

LEON will be remembered as one of the more better performed action films of the 90’s.  Jean Reno has probably the most thankless task of any of the actors, as he is asked to play a hitman that has feelings for a girl a third his age.  He does not play it broadly, nor does he let the shocking overtones of the script overtake him and his performance.  Reno plays the character with a deadpanned and a monotone restraint, but there is also and underlining sense of complete honesty with him.  When Matilda asks him what he does, he doesn’t hide from it, but comes clean right from the get go.  Gary Oldman in the film can be best described as a scenery chewer, one of those bold, exuberant, and boisterous antagonists that you just love to hate.  He’s larger than life, bold, and wicked, a kind of raging sociopath that hides himself behind a mask of sleek and freaky sophistication.  He’s not so much over acting as he’s being broad, and Oldman makes for a terrific foil to the toned down performance of Reno.  Make no doubt about it -  Oldman plays twisted and nutty about as well as anyone. 

The film belongs to Natalie Portman, who then was discovered in a New York pizza parlor and offered a modeling career.  She, on top of that, chose acting, and won over Besson in the audition process (Besson initially balked at her, seeing her as being far too young, but her maturity shined through in screen tests).  Portman’s work as Matilda may just be one of the defining introductory performances of the last few years, as she tackles a role that is layered, multi-faceted, and disturbing.  It’s quite an accomplished performance for such an inexperienced actress, and she is so equal to the task and comes across as so fluid and natural that its amazing that LEON was her first film.  Portman has had a winning presence in future films, like BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, HEAT, and ANYWHERE BUT HERE, but she has never shined more than she did in LEON.  Next to Haley Joel Osment in THE SIXTH SENSE, Portman’s work in LEON may be the best child performance of the 90’s.  How the Academy failed to nominate her is stupefying. 

LEON is not completely perfect.  There are several scenes that stretch plausibility to the max.  I am not quite convinced that Matilda, a street girl that appears to never attend school, could teach Leon how to read, nor can I believe that a man like Leon could get into a police station with the relative ease that he’s able to.  Even more unbelievable are a few crucial moments near the film’s conclusion where Leon manages to foil a battalion of New York’s finest by barricading himself in his apartment.  The scenes are well realized in terms of action and visceral style, but felt a bit labored, and I am not convinced  that his final action to conceal his identity could have fooled anyone. 

Yet, despite a few superficial faults, LEON is a fairly engrossing 2 hours, and is not told in that generic Hollywood blockbuster mentality.  Its not so much traditional as it is avant-garde and daring with its subject matter.  Its stylish, darkly humorous, witty, and terrifically acted.  It’s also shot with a level of impeccable taste that sort of solidifies it as an arthouse action film.  Besson has a real gift for diving into the subject matter and not feeling slavish to its obvious controversial undertones.  Its part action film, part stylized thriller, part urban crime noir, and part character study.  THE PROFESSIONAL was only a few of these things.  LEON facilitates all of them.  It’s kind of refreshing, even ten years later, to watch an action film that places characters first and gunshots and explosions second.  But don’t get me wrong, we get plenty of that out the film too…oh my, do we ever.

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