Who said hitmen don’t have souls?
Leon (Jean Reno) is a professional hitman that does his job, does it right, gets it over with, and by the end of the day, has a nice glass of milk and goes to sleep. One day, however, a friendly little neighbor of his named Mathilda (Natalie Portman), finds her family gunned-down by a mad DEA agent (Gary Oldman) in their apartment and is left with nowhere to go. Leon, against his original rules and regulations he’s had set in stone for many years, decides to take her in under his wing and train her to be something of a contract-killer in her own right. However, there’s a problem about this 12-year old girl, she isn’t exactly anything that he has ever encountered in life. Ever.
It’s a shame that writer/director Luc Besson hasn’t had a decent flick in about a good decade or so, because at one time, this guy was considered the go-to son-of-a-bitch when it came to action-packed thrillers that delivered on the guns and bullets, as well as the fun that made it all so damn entertaining. I’m not much of a fan with Besson since some of his last couple of projects have been a bit terrible (and trust me, The Family isn’t all that special either), but dammit does this film make me hate him even more!
Come on, Luc! Just come back to us and do what you did for this world in the first place!
That last sentence may have you confused as to whether or not I liked this film, because trust me, I didn’t just like it, I LOVED it. And why this movie pisses me off and makes me hate Besson even more for throwing out garbage left and right at the screens nowadays, is because this is the movie that reminds me why this guy kicks so much ass and is great at doing, what it is that he does. This movie has some of the most tense and suspenseful action scenes that I have ever witnessed on-screen in a long-ass time and it’s all because Besson knows how to pace himself and his material. Every once and awhile, Besson will come out guns ‘a blazing and bullets flying everywhere, and it’s just as violent as it is fun; however, he also allows for there to be some downtime devoted to character-development and emotion, while also still maintaining the fun-aspect of it all to where it’s not just about Besson filling in the blanks to the next action scene, he’s actually setting up more tension. It continues on that way throughout the whole 2 hours you’re stuck with it, and it never lets up.
But as much as this film may be a slam-bang, action-thriller at times, it’s also a very endearing and heartfelt story about the bond between the oddest of all odd couples out there: Leon and Mathilda. Aside from the amazing performances that help the characters out, there is a real piece of heart and humanity that lies within them and makes this film tick each and every second it gets the chance to. Yeah, sometimes Mathilda does get a little weird with what she says to Leon, but what’s so great about their dynamic with one another is that one is more immature and mature than the other, and it’s not the in the way you’d expect it to be or be shown.
For example, Leon is a bit of a dummy when it comes to reading and expressing his emotions, whereas Mathilda is not and helps him through that. But also, Mathilda has problems with killing people and coming to grips with growing-up, whereas Leon does and helps her through all of that in his subtle, shy way. It’s a strange dynamic that these two have, but, they both make the movie so much more special and never once feels forced. It all feels like a part of the story that’s meant to be told so that when these character’s lives are actually in danger, we care a hell of a lot more than we ever do with action flicks and that’s what separates this movie from plenty others of the same kind.
Sometimes, I think the film does go a bit over-board with the playful tone it tends to give the scenes where it’s just them two because as happy and goofy as they both may be together, it still feels a bit out-of-place. Especially when they have that overbearing score that continues to play an accordion as if somebody just walked into a pizza shop in Hell’s Kitchen. I get it, Besson, they’re all happy and having a jolly time, now knuckle down and get this thing back to being a little serious so it doesn’t seem a bit too strange to see a tough hitman, rolling around and chasing a 12-year old girl. Yeah, made it sound a lot creepier than it should be but trust me, it’s not as bad once you watch the movie. Trust me.
And the reason why it isn’t as creepy is not just because of Besson’s approach, but because of the spectacular performances from the two stars involved: Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. Reno is the type of actor that you see show-up in a lot of shit nowadays (Alex Cross, for one) and definitely does what he can with the role he’s given, but just never seems to shine anymore than the screenplay allows him to. It’s almost as if all of the charm and brightness he once had, has just been lost on mediocre script, after mediocre script. However, it’s always nice to spot him back in the golden days of his acting-career and his role as Leon being the most iconic, and most significant one. Reno is very soft-spoken and a tad naive about himself, but never comes off as a fool because the guy knows when to kill, do it right, but also turn on his “nice-guy mode” when he gets back home. It’s a performance that shows a hitman for being more than just a heartless killer; he can actually have a personality and be a nice guy for a change, and that is an idea that Reno runs oh so perfectly with. God, I wish this guy was in more stuff. I really do.
We all know Portman as being that big, A-list celebrity that seems to be the next big thing in terms of Hollywood’s leading ladies, but believe it or not, playing a young, but smart 12-year old girl from the streets was one of her first roles ever, and it ranks as one of her best, if not one of the best child performances of all-time. What makes Mathilda so damn awesome as a character is because she’s your typical kid, who always tries to act like she knows everything and is smart on any topic you throw at her, but doesn’t feel like a contrivance Besson can just throw at us. It actually feels like she’s a Ms. Smarty Pants right as soon as we meet her. And besides, even if she does know a lot more than you would ever expect her to, she doesn’t know everything and that shines on throughout this whole movie whenever he and Leon converse about the meaning of life and just what the hell is there to make sense of it all. Portman is so damn charming, funny, and entertaining to watch as Mathilda that even though she has the weirdest occupation that a 12-year-old could ever have, she still seems like a real kid and one that I would love to just be around, even though I’m 20 and it’d be a little weird. I’d definitely like to hang-out with Portman now, but, however, I think that time has passed. Damn me for not being born earlier!
As great as these two are, the real scene-stealer of the whole movie is definitely Gary Oldman as the crooked cop, Lt. Stansfield. As everybody knows, Oldman was the guy that Hollywood always called on when they needed somebody to play an outrageous, over-the-top, cook-ball of a villain and that is no different here. And seeing what he does with Stansfield, you’ll see why he was called on so much. Oldman is just wild and totally off-his-rocker throughout the whole movie and just plays this bad guy like the type of evil S.O.B. you’d expect him to be. Even though it’s nothing we haven’t seen before from a villainous role, Oldman is so good at it that you can never take your eyes off of him. Oldman has a lot of fun with this role, which is obvious, but the most fun is watching him as he chews scenery unlike any other and his scenes are sometimes the most tense because you never know when that switch of his is going to automatically flip.
Consensus: Leon: The Professional still features all of the amazingly violent action-scenes that we have come to know and love of Luc Besson, but also features more substance than just a bunch of violence, and actually has a heartfelt story that’s executed so perfectly by everybody involved, especially Reno and Portman who have almost never been better. I would put Oldman in there too, but trust me, the guy’s been crazier, if you can find that hard enough to believe.
9 / 10 = Full Price!!
Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, Collider, Joblo, ComingSoon.net
don’t keep up your hopes… Besson will not return to the form he had with Leon and Nikita… fortunately these two films stand the test of times and provide repeat viewing pleasure even today. Looking into Besson’s more recent catalog: depressing!
I know. It’s very sad to come to terms with, but some part of me still holds out hope.
This is still my favorite Luc Besson film though I’m really eager to see the uncut European version which I heard has some more weird stuff including the relationship between Leon and Mathilda. For me after The Fifth Element (which I love), Besson was never the same after that and his films became mediocre to just uninspired and poor.
I agree. It seems like he’s lost his touch and is trying to get it back again with The Family. Isn’t going to happen, but it’s worth the thought of hope that counts.
Good review, Dan. Loved this one, definitely a classic, with some of my favorte performances from the main cast. I’ll agree that some of the silly moments might go on a bit long, but it hardy ruined the movie for me or anything. Really great, intense stuff here. 🙂
Didn’t ruin it for me, it’s just that they happened too much. However, loved the rest of it no matter what.
Good review my friend. I loved this when it came out, especially Oldman’s unhinged performance. So over-the-top it’s ridiculous!
It is, but it’s trademark Oldman.
Superb stuff Dan and a brilliant film. In need of a re-watch actually.
Hope you like it again!
Wonderful film Dan. Just wonderful. It’s probably Besson’s best film and, like you say, I wish he’d deliver more of this type.
I wish so too. Sadly it may never happen.
Nice review. I think this is a great film and it has some strong performances.
Thank you! Very much so.
Awesome film, great review! This is one of my favourites, a great cast, and some brilliant action scenes
Especially that last-half. “Tense” doesn’t even describe it!
Yes, the last half of the film was really good
Great review Dan. I also wish that Luc Besson would make more films like Leon. Lately he has been a shell of his former glory. You’re right that this movie works because it has great action and thrills, balanced by a fantastic, very human story (something missing in Besson’s recent stuff). Enjoyable performances all around, especially Gary Oldman’s scene-stealing villain and Portman’s precocious youngster. I think that Danny Aiello is totally underrated though in his role as Leon’s friend/handler.
He was good too. Can’t believe I forgot about him!
This is my favorite movie – I’m glad you did it justice : )
Thank you! Glad I could!
This is by far one of the holiest of holy casts of great performances. Gary Oldman and that crooked head jerk was fantastic haha! I watched the international version out of curiosity, and I definitely performed the American release…better editing and delves less into the creepiness of Mathilda’s infatuation. Great review!
I heard it was creepier, which seemed almost impossible.
This is easily Besson’s best film. I’m with everyone else here in that I’m also highly disappointed he’s just been churning out crap lately.
I am too. He needs to come back!
Definitely loved this movie. You certainly can’t go wrong with Oldman playing a villain! (JFK, Th Book of Eli, etc..) Nice write-up!
Never can. The dude’s just got it when it comes to playing baddies.
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As much as I love this film, I love fifth element more. I agree with your 9 rating here though dan, and think you’ve crafted a great review. Benson wasn’t much better than this, jean Reno delivered a great,soulful performance, and Gary oldman have a career defining turn as stansfield. “Eeeeverrrryyyyyoooneeeee” is my favourite line in the film.
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