Today it is my privilege to write about one of my all-time favorite movies, Luc Besson’s 1994 masterpiece Leon: The Professional.
The Professional is the most moving film about a guy who kills people for a living that has ever been made. I touched on it in a very old post from way back in 2012, but here I’m going to go in to much more detail, so a spoiler warning is in effect from here on out.
Jean Reno plays Leon, a professional hitman living and working in New York City. He lives a simple life, living in a threadbare apartment with few possessions. He gets his orders from an Italian mobster named Tony, who holds court in the dining room of his restaurant. In his down time, Leon goes to the cinema to see old movie musicals (he’s a fan of Gene Kelly), does sit-ups every morning, and takes care of his houseplant, meticulously polishing every leaf so it looks nice. He sleeps in a chair in his living room every night, with a gun on the table next to him.
Leon is a gentle soul, and if he didn’t kill people for a living, you’d swear that he would never hurt a fly. One of Leon’s neighbors is a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman in her screen debut, in what remains one of her best performances.
Mathilda lives a tough life. Her father is abusive, her stepmother doesn’t care about her, and her half-sister is a spoiled brat who hates her. The one ray of sunshine in her life is her four-year-old brother, whom she adores. She has a couple of casual encounters with Leon, where he sees her sporting a black eye and smoking a cigarette. She tells him the black eye came from falling off her bike. Leon can tell this is a lie, but figures he can’t do much about it.
But despite her difficult family life, Mathilda is a spirited child. She is spunky and intelligent, with a spark in her eye that her jerk of a dad can’t diminish, no matter how much he slaps her around.
And it’s her dad that causes all of her trouble. Some shady fellows who turn out to be corrupt DEA agents are paying him to hold onto some cocaine for them, and they’re not happy when they suspect him of cutting the dope to keep some for himself. This leads to a shootout in which Mathilda’s entire family is killed while she is out shopping. When she gets back with the groceries, she has the street smarts to know that something is terribly wrong, and she knocks on Leon’s door at the end of the hall.
Leon has been watching through the peephole in his door, he knows that something’s up, and Mathilda knows that he’s watching her. The scene where she tearfully begs him to open the door is heartbreaking. The desperation in her voice just kills me. Leon reluctantly lets her in to his apartment, and the movie really takes off.
Mathilda quickly realizes that Leon is a hitman, although he prefers to be called a cleaner. She makes him a proposition: she’ll do all of his housework, and he will teach her how to clean. He initially refuses, but changes his mind when she proves her mettle to him.
The two of them develop a relationship. She does his housework and teaches him to read and write when she discovers he doesn’t know how, and he teaches her the tools and tricks of his trade. The relationship between the two of them is fascinating. He’s her surrogate father, sure, but it’s not quite that simple. He’s also her teacher, and she teaches him in return in ways he could never have expected.
Movies with pivotal characters played by child actors are always tricky. It’s extraordinary how good the chemistry is between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. In some ways, she’s more mature than he is. Leon is an expert at his profession, but he has few personal relationships and initially has no idea how to act with Mathilda. She teaches him about himself. She teaches him how to love life and gives him something to live for aside from his beloved houseplant. He loves his plant because it’s always happy, it doesn’t ask questions, and it doesn’t have roots, just like him. Mathilda tells him he should plant it someday, give it roots. Leon reluctantly agrees that he should. The metaphor with Leon’s plant is subtle in a way that most movies aren’t these days.
The thing about the relationship between Leon and Mathilda is that Mathilda is the dominant one. Reno plays Leon like he’s a bit slow mentally, and very emotionally repressed. Reno gives Leon a fascinating balance between his skills as an assassin and his simple personal life, and his gentle nature. Leon never tries to take advantage of Mathilda, and he never forces her into anything. Reno has said in interviews that he played Leon like he was mentally slow in order to make it easier for audiences to believe that he would have no sexual desire for Mathilda.
Okay, this next part is going to get uncomfortable but it has to be talked about. There’s a scene in the extended version of the movie where Mathilda tries to seduce Leon, and he turns her down. It’s an uncomfortable scene that was cut from the original theatrical version of the film, but it’s included on the Blu-Ray release. Despite the squirm-inducing nature of the scene, I feel it’s an important part of the relationship between the two of them. Describing the movie makes it sound a bit like Lolita with guns, but it’s quite a bit more emotionally complex than that.
The extended version of the movie is 24 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, and in my opinion is the better version. It fleshes out the Leon/Mathilda dynamic, it shows more of him teaching her how to be a cleaner, it gives more detail about Leon’s background, and it generally provides a fuller experience.
I’ve talked about two of the three central characters, Leon and Mathilda. The third is Norman Stansfield, the ringleader of the corrupt DEA agents who slaughter Mathilda’s family. Stansfield is played by a very young-looking Gary Oldman in what has to be one of the most bone-chilling performances ever committed to celluloid. You’re holding your breath every time he’s onscreen. Stansfield is a drug-addicted sociopath who loves classical music and feels no remorse for the things he’s done.
I’m not sure why the DEA would hire such an unhinged madman, but maybe he’s just really good at hiding it when he needs to. I love cinematic villains, and Oldman’s performance as Stansfield is one of the all-time best. He is terrifying, and the fact that we are given no background for him whatsoever makes his unpredictability all the more frightening. Oldman’s delivery of the line “I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven,” before he kills Mathilda’s family sends chills down my spine every time. I can hardly believe the actor who played characters as good as Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black also played one of the most soullessly evil people in cinematic history, but that’s just how good of an actor Oldman is.
The Professional features not one, not two, but THREE of all my all-time favorite cinematic performances. Reno, Portman and Oldman are all brilliant, and Luc Besson’s writing and directing are top-notch throughout. His film raises some difficult questions, but he never pushes it too far.
As the film progresses, Leon and Mathilda grow closer and closer. And it is in their relationship that the movie shows itself to be a love story. It’s a love story between two desperately lonely people who find each other at just the right point in their lives.
Although it should probably go without saying that it ends tragically. Stansfield eventually gets on to Leon and Mathilda, which leads to an epic confrontation with the NYPD SWAT team. In addition to being a riveting action sequence, the final showdown also provides some of the most genuinely touching moments of any film I’ve ever seen. In a desperate moment, Leon provides Mathilda with a means of escape, but she won’t go without him. “I don’t wanna lose you, Leon,” she pleads with him as tears streak her dirt-smeared face.
“You’re not going to lose me,” Leon tells her. “You’ve given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots. And you’ll never be alone again, Mathilda. I love you, now go.” That moves me so much my eyes are all misty just from typing it.
And poor Leon, he almost makes it. He has almost made good his escape from the cops, having disguised himself as a wounded SWAT officer, but he doesn’t quite get there. He doesn’t know that Stansfield has recognized him, and as Leon approaches freedom, there’s a flash, and he crumbles to the ground. Stansfield crouches over him victoriously, and Leon sees him.
“Stans…field…” Leon croaks.
“At your service,” Stansfield smirks.
Leon puts something in Stansfield’s hand. “This is from…Mathilda,” he gasps.
Stansfield opens his hand, and sees what looks like a pin with a ring attached to it. He opens Leon’s shirt and finds a string of grenades. The vile Stansfield barely has time to mutter “Shit,” before a massive explosion kills them both.
In the end, with nowhere else to go Mathilda returns to the girls school she dropped out of earlier in the film. She gets reassurance from the headmistress that they’ll do what they can to help her, and financial assistance promised from Leon’s mob pal Tony. After she talks to the headmistress, she goes outside, finds a nice spot in the grass, and plants Leon’s beloved houseplant. “I think we’ll be okay here, Leon,” she says, and the film ends.
This movie tears me up. Not many movies have the ability to move me to tears every time I watch them, but this one does. I don’t watch it all that often because it’s such an emotional rollercoaster, but every time I do watch it, by the end I feel profoundly moved.
This movie, man. This freaking movie. It blows me away. I think it’s easily Luc Besson’s best film. He juggles so many different aspects of the story and the characters, and makes it look easy. Some of the film’s content is troubling, but never so much so that it becomes too much to handle. Leon kills people for a living, and he kills several policemen in the film’s climax, and yet he’s an incredibly sympathetic character. This is a movie where the protagonist is a hired killer, and the antagonist is a government agent. Besson takes the usual setup for a hitman movie and flips it neatly on its head. The hitman doesn’t kill women or kids, the government agent does.
I’m not the only person who absolutely reveres this film. On the Internet Movie Database, it has a rating of 8.6 out of 10, which puts it at number 27 on their list of the 250 movies with the highest user ratings. That’s pretty impressive, and it shows how much the violent, tragic tale of Leon and Mathilda has resonated with people.
The Professional is a movie that is entertaining and thrilling and nail-bitingly tense, but is also brilliantly acted and profoundly moving. I have never seen a movie like this one. There is a magic to it that is impossible to repeat. It may be a bit of dark magic, but it is magic nonetheless.