Leon: The Professional is a fantastic film about an Italian hit-man who gets lumbered with a twelve year-old girl. Luc Besson is on top form with this stylish action flick making great use of a quality cast and employing intelligent direction and writing.
Leon is a simple man from Italy who fled to New York and began working for mafia boss Tony. He is the consummate professional, a skilled killer who takes his work seriously and murders without emotion. His simple rule is "no women, no children", he changes apartment frequently, trains relentlessly and sleeps upright in an armchair with a gun in easy reach and his only companion is his potted plant. His functional life is turned upside down when he agrees to take in 12 year-old girl Mathilda.
Mathilda is a strong-willed young girl with a nasty drug dealing father who mistreats her. She feels unwanted at home, below her stepmother and elder sister in the family pecking order. When a wildly out of control DEA agent leads a heavily armed raid on her apartment she is orphaned and turns to neighbour Leon for help. The two form an unlikely relationship as Mathilda convinces Leon to train her as a cleaner or hit-man.
This film is an unusual blend of touching emotional drama and beautifully filmed explosive action. Luc Besson employs some excellent direction to create tense and exciting action sequences. He also focuses on the central characters and their developing relationship giving them some real depth and adding comic and tragic touches to the action.
Besson also wrote the film and the simple premise of the plot is well explored. The characters are well written, with human touches that bring them to life and the dialogue is interesting and engaging. The film lasts 110 minutes but it is worth seeking out the uncut French version or even the international version which adds another twenty odd minutes of important scenes, the longer version is definitely better as it makes the characters actions and motivations clearer.
There are some truly amazing acting performances here. Jean Reno is a fabulous actor and the role of Leon is reminiscent of Victor in Nikita. In Leon however we get to know him much better and Reno´s comedy timing and deadpan sad eyed face add some much needed lightness to what could be a very depressing film, he is equally believable as the cold efficient killer and the shy milk drinking illiterate.
This film also marks the debut of Natalie Portman as Mathilda and she displays a lot of skill for such a young actress. Danny Aiello is perfect as Tony and endlessly typecast as a mafia boss and Gary Oldman puts in a frighteningly intense performance as the crooked DEA boss Stansfield. He appears to be listening to an internal opera as he chokes down his mysterious drugs and unleashes his considerable anger and natural cynicism on an unsuspecting world.
This is one of the best action-dramas ever made, always resisting the descent into violence on the one side and the fall into sap and over emotional cheesiness on the other, it sits perfectly between the two and satisfies both. Leon is a terribly attractive character and you cannot help but root for the hapless Mathilda. The acting, direction and writing are all excellent and if watched Leon will linger fondly in the memory.