Is Luc Besson an overrated filmmaker? I think he’s a fine director but reviewing his resume he’s usually a pretty average writer and his movies are kind of hit-or-miss. But every once in while he sneaks in an effort that surprises you, makes you take a step back and think, Whoa, where’d that come from? My most recent such reaction came while watching his last directorial effort, Angel-A, a sweet and moving love story dropped into a hotzone trifecta of mediocrity including The Fifth Element, The Messenger and Arthur and the Invisibles. To that point, outside of Angel-A he hasn’t made a substantial contribution to the medium since Leon – The Professional, a contribution certainly worth celebrating, and will be done so over the next ten paragraphs.
I didn’t see The Professional in the movie theater. I watched it on VHS. It starred some french guy I’d never heard of and a Punky Brewster-like little girl. The cover box for the movie read, “Makes Speed look like a slow ride to grandma’s house!” I’m not sure why Entertainment Time-Out (owner of the brain-dead quote) felt the need to compare the two movies, since they are nothing alike but there it was.
Whether The Professional made Speed look “like a slow ride to grandma’s house” or not is irrelevant, because it’s definitely a substantial addition to the action genre. This movie had me hook, line and sinker once Natalie Portman – in one of cinema’s great child performances – stood outside Jean Reno‘s door crying silently, begging to be let in as the lanky Frenchman peered out his peephole debating with himself whether or not he should open the door. I couldn’t remember a scene quite like it and Portman’s performance, married with the threat of violence vigorously established by Besson, made for a moment as intense as anything in Jan de Bont‘s film.
You could make the mistake of thinking the movie takes place in our world, but Besson makes it quite clear this is a world designed of rules all his own. The laws of gravity apply, perhaps, but do not expect the realities of the actual law to apply. Even giving some movie-believability latitude, I’m pretty sure Gary Oldman‘s gun and badge would have been taken away about three seconds after he left the bloody apartment in the opening scenes. Oldman and his police goons unleash 12 rounds of nonstop violence upon an unsuspecting family (okay, maybe Michael Badalucco wasn’t so unsuspecting) so ferociously there would be little doubt it was a hit job. The idea this is a world where bad men can run amok is explicit.
It’s easy to forget 15 years later this was a rather controversial movie, particularly the European cut, Leon. In fact, the European version was so risque for American test screen audiences the movie’s diciest scenes were removed and the film was retitled, The Professional. The European version is clearly the better film specifically because it takes those risks. There’s an undercurrent in this movie that is designed to make you feel a little uncomfortable and that’s what separates it from the pack. Consider the elements: A 12-year-old girl’s family, including her three-year-old younger brother are massacred. A hitman (or “cleaner” as he prefers) takes her in. She then enlists his help to teach her how to “clean” so that one day she too could master the art of scrubbing. He teaches her to kill, she teaches him to read and write. They play. He uses an oven mitt with a cartoon pig on it to get her to stop crying about losing her family to murder. Things get kinkier.
She dresses like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Gene Kelly. He dresses like John Wayne. She gets drunk at dinner. She tells him she loves him. She can feel it in the pit of her stomach, she says. It hurts. They practice killing more. At one point he confesses he may not be the best lover in the world. Because, you know, Leon isn’t the most mentally mature person in the world. There is always the speck of doubt as to what he might be willing to do. This movie feels dangerous and not just because of the bullets.
Reno’s performance is a kind of beautiful. Child like, maybe slightly mentally challenged but undeniably an efficient being. He walks as if always in a rush to be somewhere though it seems for the most part, he has very little to do with his time. He looks like an immigrant and fits in perfectly in a city filled with them. He isn’t so much a film buff as he is a fan of Gene Kelly movies. His “best friend” is a potted plant which he cares for diligently. He is a killer of hundreds but he has an undeniable innocence about him. He sits before Danny Aiello like a slightly guilty son or an indentured servant eternally grateful for whatever favor Aiello granted him years ago (he shyly inquires about money rightfully owed to him and Aiello is “holding”). That’s the other thing about Leon: you genuinely feel like you’re dropping into a fleshed-out world. There is definitely a whole slew of Leon stories before he met Mathilda just as I’m sure there are a slew of Mathilda stories to be had in the years following the film.
Portman, meanwhile, was a revelation at the time. Creepy crushes across America developed from the geeks to the greasers to the socs (count me among the crushed). Part of it was the old soul, but she was also the sort of heroine you read in Japanese manga or pulpy dime novels. There was a femme fatale edge. I remember seeing a publicity picture of Portman holding a gun in one hand and a stuffed bunny in the other. Picking up on this vibe perhaps, she was perfectly cast two years later in the Ted Demme movie, Beautiful Girls where even the much older Timothy Hutton fell for her a little.
Gary Oldman. Reactions to his work were all over the place. And honestly, I always felt perhaps he was too over-the-top, but like Al Pacino’s work in Heat more and more the hamminess has grown on me and I’m more fascinated by the actor’s work than I am riddled.
There’s an exchange early in the movie that has stuck with me for years. Portman’s character is hanging near the stairwell outside her apartment, no doubt after an abusive run-in with her father. Reno has just come back (from a job perhaps) and offers her a handkerchief for her bleeding lip. She asks, “Is life always this tough? Or just when you’re a kid?” He responds, “Always like this.”
This frankness, this honesty breathes through Leon, my favorite Besson effort. Even if the world is bogus, the relationships are not. You may not like what it makes you think or feel or worry about, but it’s one action film that isn’t about to bullshit you either. Imagine that.
The Professional was just released on Blu-ray, if you’d like to get more information on that click here.