(US/France 1994/1996 132m) DVD1/2
Aka. The Professional
p/d/w Luc Besson ph Thierry Arbogast ed Sylvie Landra m Eric Serra art Dan Weil
Jean Reno (Leon), Natalie Portman (Mathilda), Gary Oldman (Stansfield), Danny Aiello (Big Tony), Peter Appel, Michael Badalucco, Ellen Greene, Elizabeth Regen,
Every so often someone appears on screen for the first time and you say to yourself “God, the camera loves you.” One such moment came here with the arrival onscreen of Natalie Portman, her legs dangling between the railings of her upper floor apartment landing. She looks a moppet, you just know this girl is wise beyond her years, but what we perhaps don’t expect is the most fearlessly precocious performance from a thirteen year old in American film since Jodie Foster. The similarity even stretched to both showing an inherent disregard for acting in their formative late teen years and turning towards academia to prove the fierce intelligence their performances had already told those with eyes to see. Besson knew she was on the verge, too, always dressing her in shorts and minis, with that Louise Brooks bob. It’s perhaps the knowing attitude towards Portman’s budding sexuality that made the film so disturbing to some critics.
The eponymous Leon is a hitman, or a cleaner as he terms it, hired out by a Little Italy bigwig for various termination jobs. One day his solitary life is gate-crashed by thirteen year old Mathilda, who he lets into his flat to save her life when her family are all killed by corrupt narcotics cops after a stash hidden by Mathilda’s father. He warms to Mathilda, but his protection starts to erode his anonymity and eventually Mathilda’s desire for vengeance on the bad guys result in Leon making a fateful decision.
Besson is not necessarily a filmmaker I like, epitomising the ‘style over substance’ of cinema du look, but Leon has what all his other films don’t have, an emotional core. The likes of The Fifth Element might be the sort of films that a 13 year old might think was the bee’s knees. Maybe even Mathilda herself. As one might expect from a Besson film, the photography is expert, and Serra’s arabesque score catches the film’s heartbeat superbly, but this is a film about performances. A word about Oldman, deliriously o.t.t.; indeed the most o.t.t. performance seen on screen since Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, and similarly both making and breaking the film depending on your taste. What we will say is that one cannot take one’s eyes off him, opening bead curtains with matchless finesse. As the eponymous hitman, Reno has certainly never been better or more appealing, a solitary marksman who gets his few rays of sunshine at the movies watching Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather, as if Besson is reminding us that this is a fairy tale, a fantasy, and not meant to be taken as serious drama. Nonetheless, in amongst the definite homages to the ultra-cool hitmen of movie yore, of Suzuki and Melville, Leon suddenly finds himself transformed into Humbert Humbert with his own lethal Lolita. In this extended version the relationship goes into disturbing areas that may provoke uneasiness in certain viewers, with Mathilda mistaking her surrogate father for a potential lover and indulging in a crush. That it doesn’t become distasteful is testament to Besson and his actors, but particularly Portman. It makes it all the sadder then that the next decade of her film career – though no-one can call a Psychology degree from Harvard a waste of time – was a non-event, with those endless Star Wars prequels, but we got the warning of her return in a superb bit in Cold Mountain. Finally, there she was in Closer, and that magical moment where she’s seen in that purple wig – another Brooks bob, too – in the strip club and looks back at the camera over her shoulder. The knowing look instantly says “this is Mathilda, did you miss me?” And just like Mathilda when comparing her youngest hit with Leon, when she strolls through that crowd along a New York street at the end of the later film, you can almost hear her telling Jude Law’s journo “beat ya!“