Leon The Movie Review Essay Essay, Research Paper
LEON – REVIEW
Set in modern day New York, Leon (Jean Reno) is a professional hit man who carries out contracts for Italian boss Tony (Danny Aiello) who in turn acts as a father-figure and manipulator. Leon is truly exceptional at his job with an ability to move without sound, kill without emotion and disappear without trace. Despite earning $5,000 per head he abides to one rule “no women, no children”. Leon seems to derive little from his work, spending his spare time training and looking after his plant.The twists in the film begin when he meets his neighbour, 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman).
She first sees Leon while smoking a cigarette in the hallway of their apartment building. He notices that Mathilda has a bruise on her face, but she just covers up the fact by saying she fell of her bike. Soon Leon realises that she is being beaten by her stressed father and step daughter. Mathilda’s father is involved in a drugs ring with crooked DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). After lying about the location their dope, Stansfield raids their apartment killing the whole family in the process. Fortunately Mathilda is out grocery shopping at the time of the attack, but she returns to see the blood of her father pouring out over the floor. As Leon watches, interested but uninvolved, he sees her walking down the hallway, laden with groceries.
Creeping under the gaze of a particularly twitchy villain, Mathilda knocks on his door and silently pleads for sanctuary. As a dedicated hit-man Leon has no wish to compromise his position yet, after several long seconds, he inwardly relents and grants Mathilda safety from the men who have wiped out her family. Leon certainly doesn’t want this change, and neither does Tony, but Mathilda manages to convince him that saving her life makes him responsible for it so he’d better get used to her. When Mathilda discovers that Leon is a “cleaner”, her course of action becomes clear.
Through the motive of revenge for the death of her little brother, Mathilda decides to become a cleaner. At first Leon refuses to teach her his trade but eventually he allows himself to be worn down. The two of them move out of the apartment building and start a new life together. Leon begins to like having Mathilda around, even though he rarely shows the fact. Gun cleaning, target practice and assassination theory provide a form of courtship for Leon and Mathilda, although more at the father-daughter level. His guardian and mentor figure draws them closer together.
Each has the ability to salve the internal pain of the other, providing elements which their lives were previously lacking. Gradually Leon begins to open up to Mathilda, explaining how his plant is his best friend because, like him, it has no roots. In turn she makes him realise there is more to life than assassinating people and taking care of his favourite plant. Through Mathilda’s care and tutorage Leon learns to overcome his problems of illiteracy and a deep paranoia for being noticed. In time Mathilda’s feelings towards Leon change, and when she tells the hotel receptionist that he’s her lover, their problems begin to mount.
Ordered out of their hotel room, the two of them have to move into an old apartment building. The pivotal moments of the film come when Leon kills Malky, a DEA agent, during a hit on some chinease dealers. Meanwhile Mathilda has set about her plans to kill Stansfield herself. Armed to the teeth she follows him into the mensroom, not realising that she is walking straight into his trap. Leon finds a note from Mathilda stating her intensions for revenge and immediately storms through the DEA building to rescue her. The whole affair leads Standsfield to Tony, who is forced to give away Leon’s identity.
The next morning Stansfield spots Mathilda returning from the grocery store. It’s not long before dozens of DEA storm-troopers descend upon Leon’s small apartment, with the sole intention of taking them out. During the attack Leon kills the squad team, but when the CAT’s arrive he decides has no choice but to face them alone. After providing a route for Mathilda to escape to safety, Leon sacrifices his own life in order to kill Standsfield for Mathilda. Upset at hearing the news of Leon’s death, Mathilda try’s to get a job working as a cleaner for Tony. But he doesn’t relent to her plea like Leon did and demands that she go back to school.
Leon is a very slick thriller, comprised of terrific action sequences and minimal plot. The critical difference with the film is that writer and director Luc Besson makes the characters far more important, exploring their personalities and deeper feelings. Separately, Leon and Mathilda are stuck in opposing aspects of a childhood time-warp. He is an adult with the emotions of a kid because his inability to read and write reflects this, while she is treated as a little girl despite having grown up prematurely. Hence, they are fellows in spirit and ambition.
For the part of Leon, Jean Reno plays the character more with mannerisms and body language than with facial expressions, showing at times the closer he is drawn to Mathilda, the more uncomfortable he appears. Gary Oldman splatters his performance all over the screen. He is one of the least inhibited actor of his generation, and as this deranged detective Norman Stansfield, he keeps absolutely nothing in reserve. When the camera gets close to him, you feel as if you want to back away. Stansfield’s signature is his passion for music, as he performs his blood orgies to the of rhythum of Beethoven.
The less traditional role belongs to an impressive Natalie Portman, yet another member of the highly-talented, recent group of youthful actors. Portman portrays a victim of society’s ills, the perfect example of innocence corrupted. There are likely some viewers who will be disturbed by Mathilda’s predilection for profanity.The real strength of the film is the central relationship between Mathilda and Leon. Although notwell-founded in reality, these two characters mesh nicely. Despite an occasional low-key hint of sexual attraction, this is basically a father/daughter relationship.
There’s nothing unique about a young girl melting the heart of a hardened loner except the manner in which Besson approaches the theme. Because of the non-American flavour brought to this film by Besson, Leon is anything but typical fare. It is stylish and darkly humorous in its approach to the genre. Nevertheless, it delivers what viewers want from any thriller, lots of action. Leon somehow managed to alienate many film critics, while audiences either loved or hated it. Some viewers noted their discomfort with the sexuality of Mathilda and the matter-of-fact nature of the violence. Dispite very good box office figures from cinema’s around the world, Leon was often not successful at the prestigious awards ceremonies.
The year of its release, Leon was nominated for Cesars in all categories, but was completely shut out. Besson cried at the event which shows perhaps that of all his films, Leon seems to resonate emotionally more than all the others. The fact that he was not acknowledged could be due to French cultural elitism because Leon was not in French. For those willing to look beyond all the bloodshed, the strong character interaction is what makes the film compelling viewing. This is Luc Besson speaking. Better take cover. And ride out the cinematic incandescence from a safe distance.
Date of publication: 11/18/1994
For cast, rating and other information, (click here)
By Roger Ebert
History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. So, apparently, do the films of Luc Besson. In 1992 he made “La Femme Nikita,” which in its cold sadness told the story of a tough street girl who became a professional killer and then a civilized woman. Now he has made “The Professional,” about a tough child who wants to become a professional killer, and civilizes the man she chooses as her teacher.
Besson seems fascinated by the “Pygmalion” story, by the notion of a feral street person who is transformed by education. He crosses that with what seems to be an obsession with women who kill as a profession. These are interesting themes, and if “The Professional” doesn’t work with anything like the power of “La Femme Nikita,” it is because his heroine is 12 years old, and we cannot persuade ourselves to ignore that fact. It colors every scene, making some unlikely and others troubling.
The film opens with one of those virtuoso shots which zips down the streets of New York and in through a door, coming to a sudden halt at a plate of Italian food and then looking up at its owner. Besson must have been watching the opening of the old Letterman show. The man eating the food is a mob boss, played by Danny Aiello, who wants to put a contract on a guy. The man who has come whizzing through the streets is Leon (Jean Reno), a skillful but uneducated “cleaner,” or professional hitman.
We see him at work, in opening scenes of startling violence and grim efficiency. In the course of the movie, Leon will, in effect, adopt his neighbor Matilda (Natalie Portman), a tough, streetwise, 12-yearold girl. She escapes to Leon’s nearby apartment after her family has been wiped out by a crooked top DEA enforcer named Stansfield (Gary Oldman), who wants to kill her too. Matilda wants to hire Leon to avenge the death of her little brother; in payment, she offers to do his laundry.
Leon wants nothing to do with the girl, but she insists, and attaches herself like a leech. Eventually she develops an ambition to become a cleaner herself. And their fate plays out like those of many another couple on the lam, although with that 30-year age difference.
Matilda is played with great resourcefulness by Portman, who is required by the role to be, in a way, stronger than Leon. She has seen so many sad and violent things in her short life, and in her dysfunctional family, that little in his life can surprise her. She’s something like the Jodie Foster character in “Taxi Driver,” old for her years. Yet her references are mostly to movies: “Bonnie and Clyde didn’t work alone,” she tells him. “Thelma and Louise didn’t work alone. And they were the best.” (To find a 12-yearold in 1994 who knows “Bonnie and Clyde” is so extraordinary that it almost makes everything else she does plausible.) So Leon finds himself saddled with a little sidekick, just when the manic Stansfield is waging a personal vendetta against him.
Although “The Professional” bathes in grit and was shot in the scuzziest locations New York has to offer, it’s a romantic fantasy, not a realistic crime picture. Besson’s visual approach gives it a European look; he finds Paris in Manhattan. That air of slight displacement helps it get away with various improbabilities, as when Matilda teaches Leon to read (in a few days, apparently), or when Leon is able to foresee the movements of his enemies with almost psychic accuracy.
This gift is useful during several action sequences in “The Professional,” when Leon, alone and surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of law officers, is able to conceal himself in just such a way that when the cops enter an apartment in just such a manner, he can swing down from the ceiling, say, and blast them. Or he can set a trap for them. Or he can apparently teleport himself from one part of an apartment to another; they think they have him cornered, but he’s behind them. So many of the movie’s shoot-outs unfold so conveniently for him that they seem choreographed. The Oldman character sometimes seems to set himself up to be outsmarted, while trying to sneak up on Leon in any way not actually involving chewing through the scenery.
The premise “La Femme Nikita” was that its heroine began as a thoroughly uncivilized character without a decent bone in her body, and then, after society exploited her savagery, she was slowly civilized through the love of a good, simple man. “The Professional” uses similar elements, rearranged. It is a well-directed film, because Besson has a natural gift for plunging into drama with a charged-up visual style. And it is well acted.
But always at the back of my mind was the troubled thought that there was something wrong about placing a 12-year-old character in the middle of this action. In a more serious movie, or even in a human comedy like Cassavetes’ “Gloria,” the child might not have been out of place. But in what is essentially an exercise – a slick urban thriller – it seems to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it.
(STAR) (STAR) 1/2
Stansfield Gary Oldman
Matilda Natalie Portman
Leon Jean Reno
Tony Danny Aiello
Directed by Luc Besson. Running time: 112 minutes. Classified R (for
scenes of strong graphic violence, and for language).
The Professional (aka Leon)
A Film Review by James Berardinelli
Date Released: 11/18/94
Running Length: 1:52
Rated: R (Violence, language, mature themes)
Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello
Director: Luc Besson
Producer: Patrice Ledoux
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Eric Serra
Released by Columbia Pictures
The career aspirations of Mathilda (Natalie Portman) aren’t those of the average 12-year old girl. Instead of wanting to be a doctor, fashion model, teacher, lawyer, or nuclear physicist, Mathilda has decided to follow in the footsteps of her best friend, surrogate father, and protector, Leon (Jean Reno). The only problem is that Leon is a “cleaner” — a professional hit man (”Cool” is her one-word response when she learns this tidbit of information).
Mathilda comes from a very dysfunctional family. Her father is a drug dealer, his wife (played by Ellen Greene in a wig and performance that strongly recall images of Little Shop of Horrors’ Audrey) despises her, and her half-sister enjoys beating her up. Mathilda’s chief pleasure is hanging out in her New York City tenement building’s stairwell, smoking cigarettes.
One day, a crooked cop (played with typical over-the-top exuberance by Gary Oldman) decides to have Mathilda’s whole family exterminated. When she arrives home to find them slaughtered, she goes to Leon, who lives down the hall, for help. Although he’s at first reluctant to open his door to her, once he does, she worms her way into both his life and his heart. And she’s not some wide-eyed innocent; her desire to learn about killing is fueled by the need to exact bloody revenge for her little brother’s murder (she could care less about the other family members).
In La Femme Nikita, writer/director Luc Besson proved his capability of putting as much octane and adrenaline into a thriller as any American director while keeping his formula uniquely non-Hollywood. Much the same is true of The Professional, which has sequences to rival those of Speed for white-knuckle excitement – not to mention a plot that’s equally as preposterous.
The real strength of The Professional, however, is the central relationship between Mathilda and Leon. Although not well-founded in reality, these two characters mesh nicely. Despite an occasional low-key hint of sexual attraction, this is basically a father/daughter or mentor/apprentice relationship. There’s nothing unique about a young girl melting the heart of a hardened loner except the manner in which Besson approaches the theme.
Jean Reno, essentially reprising his “cleaner” role from Nikita (where he was called Victor), plays his character with a perpetual deadpan (except when he lampoons John Wayne). He does more with mannerisms and body language than with facial expressions, and the closer he is drawn to Mathilda, the more uncomfortable he appears.
The less traditional role belongs to an impressive Natalie Portman, yet another member of the highly-talented, recent group of youthful actors. Portman portrays a victim of society’s ills, the perfect example of innocence corrupted. There are likely some viewers who will be disturbed by Mathilda’s predilection for profanity.
Because of the non-American flavor brought to this film by Besson, The Professional is anything but typical fare. It is stylish, darkly humorous, and almost artsy in its approach to the genre. Nevertheless, it delivers what viewers want from any thriller: lots of action. With some surprisingly strong character interaction, there’s a lot to like about this movie, at least for those willing to look beyond all the bloodshed.
At one point, Leon comments to an attentive Mathilda that “the closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client.” Through the intimacy of the link forged by Besson with his audience, there’s no doubt that he’s as much the consummate professional as his implacable title character
L on (1994)
(aka The Professional)
A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright Movie Reviews UK 1997
Superficially the tale of an assassin and his young protege, L on transcends the action genre by genuinely caring for its protagonists. Set in modern day New York, Leon (Jean Reno) is a top-flight hired gun who carries out the occasional hit for Italian boss Tony (Danny Aiello), part father-figure and part manipulator. Leon is truly exceptional at his job, as we see in the opening scenes, embodying an ability to appear/disappear at will with total ruthlessness. However, he does abide by the traditional honour code of “no women, no children”, which is a welcome contrast to the psychopathic killers found in many films. Strangely, Leon seems to derive little from his work, spending his spare time training, caring after his plant and letting Tony “look after” his money. The twist comes when Leon spies his next-door neighbour’s annihilation in a furious gun battle, the result of trying to trick the wrong people.
As Leon watches, interested but uninvolved, he sees the daughter Mathilda (Natalie Portman) walking down the hallway, laden with groceries. Creeping under the gaze of a particularly twitchy villain, Mathilda knocks on his door and silently pleads for sanctuary. As a dedicated hit man Leon has no wish to compromise his position yet, after several long seconds, he inwardly relents and grants Mathilda safety from the men who’ve wiped out her family. Thus begins a new phase in Leon’s life, an interruption to his endless routine of training and action. He certainly doesn’t want this change, and neither does Tony, but Mathilda manages to convince him that saving her life makes him responsible for it (so he’d better get used to her). However, when Mathilda discovers that Leon is a “cleaner”, her course of action becomes clear.
Convincing Leon to take her as an apprentice, so that she can go after murderer Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), proves tricky but eventually Leon allows himself to be worn down. He kind of likes having Mathilda around, even if she does force a few changes of address (he’s deeply paranoid of being noticed, for good reason). Gun cleaning, target practice and assassination theory provide a form of courtship for Leon and Mathilda (although more at the father-daughter level), drawing them closer together. Each has the ability to salve the internal pain of the other, providing elements which their lives were previously lacking. Eventually though, the Stansfield problem forces its way into their happiness. He’s more than just a drug baron regrettably, not that this dissuades Mathilda.
In many ways L on is a slick thriller, comprised of terrific action sequences and minimal plot (enough to stitch the explosions together). The critical difference here is that Luc Besson makes the characters far more important than any shoot-out (excellent though these are), exploring their personalities with a European touch. Separately, Leon and Mathilda are stuck in opposing aspects of a childhood time warp; he is an adult with the emotions of a kid (his inability to read and write reflects this), while she is treated as a little girl despite having grown up prematurely. Hence, they are fellows in spirit and ambition. The stunning performance leeched from Portman anchors L on, as she moves easily from vulnerability to callousness to affection, although Reno is also convincing. The sticking point arises with Oldman who makes his role so over-the-top and violently dangerous that it’s impossible to believe in his position (obviously the whole tale requires suspension of disbelief but, somehow, this aspect is just too much). L on is still strikingly good though, stylish, bloody and a fine meld of American/European precepts.