Léon: The Professional, directed by Luc Besson is a movie I remember first watching over a decade and a half ago on network TV – a young me thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen: a hitman dropping from ceilings and stairways and taking out scores of victims with a grittiness and style that was more appealing than any prototypical Bond film of the time. But it wasn’t until after scattered re-viewings over the years that I began to appreciate the layers of dramatic and emotional depth in Léon. After once again watching the uncut international version the other day, 20 years after its initial release in 1994, I’ve no issues in saying Léon is one of my all-time favorite films. So much so that yes, I am writing a movie review two decades later.
An Man Strangely Akin to Rocky Balboa and Batman
Jean Reno is masterful in his role as the naïve, illiterate, and simple-minded title assassin, Léon. An unassuming man who embodies a strange combination of traits from Rocky Balboa and Batman, Léon prefers drinking milk over wine, watching Gene Kelly musicals alone in the theater, and meticulously caring for a potted plant that he deems is his best friend. It is not a stark contrast from his solitary life profession as a “cleaner,” presented early on in the film as a routine of long-term and uncomfortable rigidity. It isn’t until he befriends Mathilda that he allows himself to drop this guard and truly have “a taste for life.”
Mathilda: The Apprentice
Mathilda, portrayed by a wonderfully talented young Natalie Portman (in her first ever on-screen role) is Léon’s 12-year-old neighbor who has just gone through the traumatic experience of having her entire family brutally murdered, with the hopelessly empty realization that she is now completely alone in her life. She is bent on killing the people responsible for murdering her family, even if she has to do it herself. In a movie where Mathilda is apt to place herself into adult conversations and situations, it is impressive how regularly and convincingly she reminds the audience of her age and vulnerability, evidenced by Portman’s strong portrayal of the character.
An Immediate Red Flag to Many
At its core, Léon is a story about the evolving bond between Léon and Mathilda. So let’s go ahead and address the obvious: a critical moment for audience members early in the film is coming to accept a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl developing a relationship with one another. An immediate red flag to many, (and I’ve known some who could not get over that subconscious unease) it’s a missed opportunity to simply dismiss the movie on that point without appreciating how beautiful and truly complex Léon and Mathilda’s feelings are for each other. There are certainly romantic undertones and, at times, outright discrete sexual advances by the 12-year-old Mathilda, but Jean Reno’s perfect portrayal as Léon never once leads the audience to believe that the character would ever take advantage of her.
Additionally, Mathilda’s misguided romantic advances at Léon are never met with what could be construed as a condescending implication that she’s merely a child. Instead, in one poignant example in the film, Léon chooses the words of his refusal as if he was speaking to any other adult, “Mathilda, I would not be a good lover.” He speaks to her on common ground and it’s a testament to their developing relationship and the understanding that Mathilda’s feelings are a skewed byproduct of her troubled upbringing.
“No women, no kids. That’s the rules.”
Léon’s self-abiding rule as a hitman is, in a way, a metaphor for Mathilda’s own personal growth throughout the film. Not quite a woman and no longer a kid, wrought out of necessity after the jarring experiences and environment she’s grown up in, Mathilda is a constant reminder to the audience of the blurred cross-section of the character’s child-like innocence, troubled youth angst, and her rudimentary understanding of love… “from one of her sister’s magazines.” Coupled with Léon’s own childlike naiveté and general social discomfort, their ambiguously defined partnership is the crux of most of the dramatic tension in the film, and, the basis for many of its comedic and uplifting moments.
“Bring me everyone.”
The main antagonist of the film and the one responsible for the murder of Mathilda’s entire family is corrupt DEA official Norman Stansfield, brilliantly brought to life by Gary Oldman. Stansfield straddles his own depraved line between charismatic sociopath and maniacal caricature and, for most of the movie, seemingly exists in his own universe. So immediately polarizing in every scene he’s in, I’ve never felt as uneasy or anxious watching a movie villain than I have when watching Stansfield (besides possibly Colonel Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds). The fear that Stansfield instills in his victims (and even his own men) combined with the dismissive attitude he exhibits to other law enforcement colleagues creates a feeling of helplessness within the audience. It sends the message that Stansfield is a man who’s untouchable in this world and can get away with anything…unless someone stops him. It’s a familiar and shared feeling that propels Mathilda in her determined path towards revenge throughout the film.
The action in Léon is fast and stylized, with many of the “hits” taking place quickly and with Léon out of direct sight, just as one would imagine from a professional hitman. The main scenes consist of an introductory contract playing out, a dementedly captivating massacre by Stansfield, a montage of controlled, lower risk hits assisted by Mathilda, and a climactic end sequence where Léon takes on “everyone.” Excellently paced over the entirety of what is more like a 2+ hour dramatic piece, the action scenes offer not so subtle interjections of danger, reminding viewers of the severity of the situations these characters find themselves in.
“Please open the door…”
The scene that will always get me is when Mathilda returns home from a shopping errand and walks past her apartment, witnessing the aftermath of the murder of her family and decidedly steps past her father’s dead body to Léon’s door for safe haven. Mathilda quietly breaks down into tears with the raw fear and emotion of that moment, whispering in broken cadence, “please, please open the door…” Intermittent shots show Léon waiting on the other side, pistol in hand, reluctant, and unsure of what to do – and it is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed in film. Had I seen this movie in theaters I would have listened for the collective sigh of relief from the audience at the moment when Léon finally opens the door and a light shines over Mathilda, perfectly matching the pure relief in her eyes. Her life had been saved in that moment.
There’s also a wonderful scene at the end of the movie where Léon emerges from a dark building towards daylight that is reminiscent of this fateful door encounter with Mathilda in the beginning of the film. It’s a scene that is at once tragic but beautifully fitting in the visual way that Léon and Mathilda’s story arcs intersect. Mathilda had been saved when Léon opened the door to allow her to enter his life, and now we accept that Léon, in his own reciprocal way, fully gained a new appreciation for his own life that only manifested after befriending Mathilda.
A Winning Mix of Drama, Comedy, and Action
Léon is a film that has been a more enjoyable experience upon each subsequent viewing. It’s a deeply gripping, albeit straightforward story – but one that works as well as it does based on the strength of the performances delivered by its three main actors. It’s not difficult to consider how easily this film could have fell flat on its major points of conflict and tension, or become just another mediocre action flick. But it doesn’t. And it isn’t. Not by a long shot. A winning mix of drama, comedy, and action, Léon remains at the top of my list of favorite movies. So watch it! The film hinges on nearly perfect performances and I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing ringer to the characters the three main actors bring to life in Léon – a true compliment to the film’s quality and creative directorship under Luc Besson.