Movie Review: Léon: The Professional


A hit man takes in a young girl after her family is murdered.


Luc Besson, 1994

Professional hit man Léon (Jean Reno) keeps a low profile. He lives in a small apartment in New York City, despite his fortunes. He is solitary, and he likes it that way, but the friendship of young Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is not easily denied. She takes a liking to Léon, who is at least somewhat positive towards her, unlike her awful, abusive family. When her father’s drug dealings go awry, he and the rest of Mathilda’s family are gunned down in an upsetting scene in their apartment by psychopathic DEA agent/addict Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Mathilda is forced to hide out in Léon’s apartment to avoid being killed herself. They soon form an unlikely and uncomfortable bond, as Mathilda encourages Léon to become more engaged with the world around him. She also takes him into teaching her to “clean”, and she becomes his protégé in the killing people for money business.


This movie was simultaneously nothing like how I imagined it, and exactly the way I thought it would be. It’s one of those films that have rattled around at the back of my mind for years, and I know I’ve seen about 10-15 minutes of it at some point, but I don’t think I ever really had an understanding of what the film is really like. Luc Besson is a curiosity. He has big ideas and a whole lot of style, but his European sensibilities don’t always match his American settings. Léon: The Professional is definitely a film with a lot of blistering style. There are shoot-outs and explosions aplenty here, though one does wonder why nobody seems to notice the insane goings-on in these apartments. The apartment building that comprises the majority of the settings for the movie has that filmic quality of being just the right amount of run-down to still look amazing; in reality, the apartments probably cost a bucketload, and are bought by trendsters. The pockmarked white walls, narrow halls, and sweeping staircase set the aesthetic for the film; Mathilda’s black bob and choker and Léon’s hat, glasses, and suspenders contrast against the pale washed-out backgrounds to draw focus. They are oddballs who are drawn inexorably to each other against an apathetic, violent world.

This violence is personified by Gary Oldman’s outrageous turn as Stansfield, a power-mad, completely unhinged drug addict with a flair for the operatic. Oldman seems to be having the time of his life inhaling the scenery. He’s pitched pretty well against the low-key Reno, who seems stoic at first, until you realise that Léon is essentially a child. His skills are entirely related to his work. His only friend is a plant, and his social skills are negligible. He can’t read, and there’s a simplicity to him that’s offset by Portman’s intense world-weariness. The moments where she acts childlike are the most charming moments in the film, but she also has a crush on Léon, leading to some borderline inappropriate scenes. He doesn’t seem to know any other way of dealing with her than to turn her away or indulge her interest in learning to kill people. There’s a very dark undercurrent to the movie that’s unsettling, and I’m giving Besson the benefit of the doubt in assuming it’s meant to be. Sometimes the film is a little too full of itself, but it’s definitely something unusual.

Léon: The Professional on IMDb


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