Léon: The Professional (1994)

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Food: For my friends birthday, we had the worlds strangest meal at a local East Village Italian spot called Mani in Pasta. I have to start with – the food was great. The reviews prior to ours were stellar. I have a feeling that our experience was a one-off. But our server was entirely shit-faced the entire time, guzzling wine in the corner, continually to make the same bizarre joke of taking our food away from us while we were eating and then garrulously giving it back, and forgetting to bring back our leftovers he was meant to box up. Oh, and did I mention he mixed up everyone’s checks in the restaurant? So awkward.

Film: Before there was “The Fifth Element” (1997), French director Luc Besson brought “Léon: The Professional” (1994) to the screen, a story about the unlikely friendship between a deadly assassin and a 12 year old girl. Fascinatingly, before making this film, he released the French film “La Femme Nikita” (1992), which is a story about a tough street girl who becomes a professional killer. Clearly, he has had a type. That first one went on to become mostly forgettable, but the other two, over time, have gathered a consistent cult following. Many a Halloween costume has been fashioned to imitate either of these films, and they seem to get higher praise as a pop cultural influence than as a stand alone cinematic piece. Much of this is because these films ooze style and create instantly iconic characters. With sharp haircuts and rakish sunglasses, these characters remain memorable.

The film largely takes place in a small, run-down apartment unit where a young girl, Matilda (Natalie Portman in her debut performance), frequently escapes to the hallway to sulk and smoke cigarettes. Her neighbor, Léon (Jean Reno), passes by, pretending not to notice or care, but occasionally she gives him a chirpy comment or two. One day, Matilda is forced to seek Léon for refuge, and he reluctantly allows her into his home. From here on out, they develop an odd kinship that is grounded in unfaltering honesty with one another and an unspoken understanding of one another.

Jean Reno’s Léon balances the quiet strength and thunderous nature that is him as a hit man and the uncomprehending and dim, but lovable role of father-figure. It is crucial to the success of this story (which is only successful some of the time) that Léon is seen as slow, illiterate, and unaffected. Otherwise, his relationship with Matilda, and especially her budding sexuality and interest towards him, would be seen as predatory. Reno plays this well and becomes lovable.

Meanwhile, Natalie Portman just absolutely kills it in this film. It is mesmerizing to watch her sincere, heartfelt, and unflinching performance, especially at such a young age. She solely drives the emotional depth that exists within this film, and makes sure that we care. She is the reason this story matters at all.

The film goes for a romanticized aesthetic, which Roger Ebert described as “a European look; [Besson] finds Paris in Manhattan” He actually shot many of the apartment shots in Paris, and the street shots in New York City, so this adds up. This also suspends the reality ever so slightly, allowing the piece to exist within the realm of fantasy, and this approach feeds some of the other elements of the film (i.e., the subtle romance between the two despite a jarring age gap, the impressive skill set of both assassins). I would like to think that Besson intentionally constructed certain action sequences to appear purposefully make-believe or over-the-top, as though they were shown in a heroic light from Matilda’s perspective. However, I hesitate to think it was that ambitious. Much of the film is still gritty and abrasive, which feels more deliberate, as though he is finding a similar tone as another cult classic, “True Romance” (1993) which was released a year prior. Not to mention, like the unhinged drug dealer with white boy dreads, Drexl Spivey, we get another radical performance from Gary Oldman in this film, as the crooked DEA officer Stansfield.

Overall, this film has a chaotic, predictable and somewhat uninteresting story line that is sewn together with incredibly charming character moments that elevate the film to stand the test of time. It is not great, but it is fun to watch. And re-watch. And imitate. And create art around and quote. It is genuine and “cool” and good.

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