100 Films’ 100 Favourites #51
He moves without sound.
Kills without emotion.
Disappears without trace.
Also Known As: The Professional (USA) *shudder*
Runtime: 110 minutes | 132 minutes (version intégrale)
BBFC: 18 | 15 (version intégrale)
Original Release: 14th September 1994 (France)
US Release: 18th November 1994
UK Release: 3rd February 1995
First Seen: VHS, c.1999
Jean Reno (Les visiteurs, Ronin)
Natalie Portman (Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Black Swan)
Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Luc Besson (Nikita, The Fifth Element)
Luc Besson (The Transporter, Taken)
When her family are murdered by a corrupt police officer, 12-year-old Mathilda runs to hide with her quiet, reclusive neighbour, Léon. Turns out he’s a hitman, and she begins to train with him so she can exact her revenge…
As the title character, Jean Reno’s child-like hired killer is likeable, sympathetic, and quite sweet — traits one wouldn’t typically associate with his profession. As his young ward, Mathilda, Natalie Portman is compelling, playing a hardened, emotionally bruised kid in desperate need of support and guidance, more so than she needs vengeance.
Gary Oldman brings pure entertainment value to the film in one of his most iconic performances: Stansfield, the crazy copper with a penchant for both drugs and quotable dialogue.
Best Supporting Character
There’s not much room for anyone else to stand out around the three lead performances, but Danny Aiello comes closest as Léon’s kindly mafioso handler, Tony.
Stansfield: “Bring me everyone.”
Benny: “What do you mean ‘everyone’?”
As Mathilda returns home from buying groceries, she sees the door to her family’s apartment open and a man standing suspiciously outside. As she nears, she catches a glimpse inside — her father sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. She keeps walking, pretending not to have seen, and approaches Léon’s door — where he’s been watching through his peephole. Trying to hold back tears, she rings his bell. Behind the door, Léon fidgets, not answering — he doesn’t want to get involved. She pleads under her breath. She rings again. The man at her door watches, suspicious. She rings again, desperate. Léon is torn… OK, you know all along what he’s going to do, but Besson’s direction and the performances from Portman and Reno ring every second of tension out of the sequence.
Letting the Side Down
Some people find the relationship between Léon and Mathilda problematic, and that gets in the way of their enjoyment of the movie. I’ve never seen it that way. Mathilda tries to inappropriately push herself on Léon, but he never takes her up on it. He’s a child himself in many ways and that side of life doesn’t seem to engage him at all, never mind in an unacceptable fashion.
The film’s second shot (still in the credits) is a tracking shot that travels along a New York road without stopping. It was only possible after studying the pattern of the traffic lights along the route to make sure the camera truck didn’t encounter any red lights.
The film was inspired by Jean Reno’s role in Besson’s previous film, Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita), in which he turns up in the third act as “Victor the Cleaner”, dressed in an outfit similar to Léon’s, to deal with Nikita’s botched mission.
Besson wrote a script for a sequel focusing on a grown-up Mathilda. While they waited for Portman to age into the role, Besson left Gaumont to start his own studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at his departure, Gaumont have apparently refused to let him have the necessary rights. According to Olivier Megaton (the director of Besson projects like Transporter 3 and both Taken sequels) it will now likely never happen. Reportedly the script was recycled into Colombiana, which I am now 100% more interested in seeing.
7 César nominations (Film, Actor (Jean Reno), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
What the Critics Said
“For Luc Besson, [Léon] is a poetic brute, a man without humanity who has lived so close to darkness for so long that he has lost all connection to the light. The universe around him, too, is a symbolic construction, an interweaving of opera, film noir and existentialism, where the larger-than-life forces of innocence and corruption explode in blood and violence. […] Reno plays it minimally; Oldman splatters his performance all over the screen. Oldman is the least inhibited actor of his generation, and as this deranged detective, 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. He thinks of everything, even his blood orgies, in terms of rhythm and color. You want Beethoven? he asks, picking up a shotgun. I’ll play you some Beethoven. Fortunately, Besson structures his film in much the same way. Not only does music play an important role in giving texture to his material, his scenes — especially the violent ones — are presented as arias, chamber pieces, symphonies.” — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post
Worst Spurious Connection in a Supposedly Professional Review
“A favorite of IMDb fanboys (who have absurdly — but predictably — ranked it the 27th best movie of all time!) and reportedly of pedophiles as well” — Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing (You’re right about one thing, though, Matt: 27th is ridiculous — Léon is top ten material.)
Counterpoint to Mr Brunson
“[It] would go on to become one of his most highly-regarded films among audiences. Sadly it was not thought of nearly as well by critics, merely receiving somewhat average reviews, giving us another sad oversight [and] proving that there are those times where the general audience can have more perception into a film than those that analyze them for a living.” — Jeff Beck, examiner.com
What the Public Say
“In spite of ranking on the top ten lists of many, many movie fans since its release, my love for [Léon] was not immediate. As a matter of fact I pretty much disliked it on the first and second outings because I couldn’t quite grasp what Luc Besson was going for with this film. It’s not an action movie, it’s more of a love story set to the tone of bloodshed and corruption, a subtle poetic masterpiece that relies on characterization and artistic strokes of pure raw emotion than some shoot em up gangster flick. […] I’ve come to truly appreciate what a pure piece of brilliant filmmaking this is and the loose allusions this has toward another Besson masterpiece La Femme Nikita. Everything about this film from the performances right down to the set pieces are like pieces of moving art, and Besson is the artist with the brush. […] Besson’s incomparable film is almost impossible to beat and there’s yet to be a director who could match his magnum opus. Even after almost twenty years, [Léon] stands as the superlative masterpiece of action filmmaking and has yet to be matched or toppled by any director in the business.” — Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed
Elsewhere on 100 Films…
I reviewed the extended “version intégrale” cut of the film in 2008, asserting that “I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. […] I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. […] Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.”
Léon delivers the kind of tense sequences of action you’d imagine of a dramatic action-thriller (i.e. not highly-choreographed punch-ups every five minutes, but the action scenes that do appear are suspenseful), but the film’s real joy lies in its characters, who are expertly performed and wonderful to spend time with (in a movie context — in real life, I wouldn’t be so sure…) As a whole, Besson brews the grittily realistic with something far more fantastical to create a film that is, perhaps, a little too unique for some to get a handle on (I’m thinking of the handful of low-rated critics reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which fly in the face of the consensus opinion). For the majority, however, Léon is a gripping, characterful, rewatchable masterpiece.
#52 just can’t wait… to be king.