Cult review: Léon: The Professional
Originally posted here for The University of Sheffield (ForgePress) on 17/05/2013
Léon (Jean Reno) is an immigrant in New York City whose life consists of being a skilled assassin and watering a Japanese peace lily. One day, however, his 12 year old neighbour Mathilda (Natalie Portman) disrupts his stoical existence by seeking refuge with him after her family are brutally murdered by Stansfield (Gary Oldman), a corrupt, psychotic DEA agent with a pill popping problem.
Mathilda demands retribution and manages to convince Léon to teach her the ways of being a “cleaner” and in return teaches him how to read and write. When Stansfield and Mathilda finally come to blows, the result is a messy wildfire of emotions and bullets that truly moves the audience and is a reminder of how powerful film can really be.
Luc Besson (director and writer) created the character Léon after Reno’s performance in one of his previous films (La Femme Nikita), in which he plays a similar role of reserved “cleaner” Victor. This is understandable when you realise how much of Léon: The Professional’s brilliance is down to Reno’s graceful, likeable portrayal of the eponymous protagonist and the development of his character post-Mathilda. Portman’s debut performance also stands out and the two of them are the reason this film shines so brightly.
This film is so different because it explores a risky subject matter, i.e. the confusing relationship that blossoms between Léon and Mathilda. Mathilda views it as a sexual relationship, often trying to seduce Léon, whereas Léon remains paternal, although he often seems confused about the situation due to his child-like naivety. The relationship is carefully approached and acted, stopping it from becoming uncomfortable for the wrong reasons, although obviously some level of awkwardness is intended. It is because the relationship is so strange and new to both Léon and Mathilda (neither having anyone else to depend or rely upon previously) that it works, and you find yourself becoming incredibly attached to both characters.
Léon: The Professional is a prime example of a character led film, which is added to by their iconic costumes: Léon’s trademark wife-beater, braces and dark circular glasses and Mathilda’s violent bob and black choker. They are instantly recognisable to anybody who has seen the film, a rare and tell-tale sign of a film achieving iconic status amongst fans, and it deserves praise for originality, sincerity and outstanding character execution.