LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Scenes of Strong Graphic Violence, and for Language

Leon poster

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello

Films involving hitmen usually go a certain way. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of fantastic films involving contract killers, but they all seem to have a similar dark tone. One of the many things that separates LEON (both the film and its title character) from his brothers in crime is that this film never feels unrelentingly bleak or gritty. This is a movie where the profession of Leon isn’t seen as a dark brooding plot device, but instead it’s the background for a much bigger story at play, one involving love, loss, and good old-fashioned revenge.

Leon is a ruthless and efficient killer for hire. He’s good at his job, but also very lonely. His one friend in the world is a plant that he nurtures. In the shady apartment building where Leon lives, there is another lonely soul. Her name is Mathilda and she’s a 12-year-old girl from an abusive family. Her one friend in the world is her 4-year-old brother, whom she takes care of more than his real mother. When some corrupt cops come knocking about her father ripping them off, they eliminate the whole family…except for Mathilda, who was out grocery shopping. Leon takes her in and she quickly picks up on what exactly he does for a living. Instead of being repulsed or scared, Mathilda tries to hire the reluctant Leon to help her get revenge against the people who murdered her family in cold blood. A close relationship between the two is born and the corrupt DEA officer who orchestrated the attack on Mathilda’s family begins to suspect that she survived.

The three big names in this film belong to the three characters who take center stage. There aren’t many side characters besides the guy who gives Leon his jobs and the DEA officer’s gang. We primarily focus on Leon (played in a subtle way by Jean Reno) and Mathilda (a very young Natalie Portman in her feature debut). These are two complicated characters that have both been damaged in some way, Leon from the loneliness he’s experienced and Mathilda from the traumatizing event and her family being abusive to her. The two make a perfect fit and even though, Mathilda is not even a teenager yet, we still root for her cause. Natalie Portman shows that she had a knack for acting from the very beginning.

In most cases, a hero is only as good as his villain and Gary Oldman delivers one of the most frightening psychotic presences your ever bound to see. He’s just so good at playing a classical music loving madman, who pops a pill before he indulges in violence. Oldman vanishes from the film completely for a good chunk of it, while we are given time to watch the relationship develop between Leon and Mathilda. When he returns, it’s in a big way and he masterfully gives this villain life.

As far as the cinematography goes, the film is just well-constructed all around. I can imagine that those expecting a rock ’em sock ’em action flick will walk away a bit let-down. LEON is a film that focuses on being a drama with some insane bits of violence (especially in the last act). This is a welcome relief. It also shows that a movie can have explosions and gun-waving anti-heroes and not be a mindless overblown exercise. The movie is gripping and thoroughly entertaining. It never goes too dark and always somehow keeps a straight face even with this ludicrous set-up.

LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL is a masterpiece! It’s one of the best crime movies I’ve seen in my life (right up there with GOODFELLAS) and sports the most likable hitman you’ll ever see (probably the only one too). It deserves every bit of praise that it has received. Also, it should be noted that I watched the director’s cut (which is a full 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version) and from what I’ve read, adds more to the relationship between Leon and Mathilda. If you haven’t seen LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, give this cut a watch and do it now!

Grade: A+

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