Retro-Review – Leon: The Professional (1994)

I revisited this classic of 90’s action cinema when I found it on Netflix the other night and have to say it was quite enjoyable. I think in many ways it is quite dated, but mostly it has aged well, and the three leads (Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and an 11-year old Natalie Portman in her film debut) are its heart and soul. I still like it about as much as I did when I first saw it, which is to say very much.

Jean Reno plays Leon, a hitman and loner whose next door neighbor is murdered by crooked cops (led by scenery-chewing Gary Oldman as Stansfield) over missing drugs, with only the middle child, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), escaping by the dumb luck of having gone to the corner store when the bad guys came in. She turns to her mysterious neighbour for help and he reluctantly takes her under his wing. Luc Besson’s New York crime fantasy is awfully 90’s sometimes in its fashions and lighting styles, but the director has a flair for slick action set-pieces, even if credibility takes a back seat to some of the set pieces. Best of all, the movie feels very brisk and tight, moving from scene to scene at a nice pace so the movie doesn’t feel like it’s almost two hours long.

The action is very capably handled by Besson, who casts such charismatic actors in the leads that you become emotionally invested even though what’s going on is plainly ridiculous. Jean Reno is great as the understated hitman with a  heart of gold and he has great screen presence. He’s the perfect foil for Natalie Portman’s streetwise moppet, too-cool-for-school yet wide-eyed and curious at the same time. There are weird Lolita-esque undercurrents in their relationship which give the movie an interestingly odd tone quite different from other urban crime action movies, and I know the European cut has at least one scene cut from the US version (the one on Netflix) which treads the line, but it is what makes the movie remarkable among 90’s action films. Gary Oldman rocks in every scene he’s in, giving a great show of contained craziness as a psychopathic crooked narcotics detective. Again, his character is not believable, but the actor is so much fun to watch that I didn’t really care.

The movie is a great example of turning mediocre material into something highly watchable through great casting and clever direction. In other hands, I can easily imagine the movie being a boring, cliché-ridden technical exercise but Luc Besson has a wonderful eye and sense of humour in the way he balances brutal violence with corny sentiment and real tenderness, as well as a few jokes amid the weirder shadings of the Reno/Portman relationship. It’s definitely an exceptional action movie.

I would say Leon: The Professional is worth watching if you haven’t, and worth re-watching if you have. The cliché plot supports a strangely dynamic relationship story and the casting of Reno, Portman and Oldman is superb as they all deliver distinct, magnetic performances. The balance of elements is very capably handled by Luc Besson, a director with great aplomb at turning something stupid into something fun.