The Professional (1994)

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The Professional is not a film for everyone. Director Luc Besson has a bombastic style that will put off as many as it will enchant. Likewise, the film is foul and deals with plenty of graphic, unabashed violence and plenty of this takes place in the presence of a child. And if that doesn’t offend you the subject matter might as the film touches on some material that is more than a little bit sensitive.

And Leon (Jean Reno) is not a sensitive kind of guy. As a pale, skinny guy with unkempt facial hair he’s not much to look at, but when he slips on the shades and dons that little hat he becomes a phantom, a shadowy hitman, the best in the business. He keeps to himself, or at least he does until his neighbors get slaughtered over a drug deal and the only surviving child, Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her first role), knocks at his door. He takes her in and an odd relationship begins between the two.

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For all of Leon’s calculated coolness on the job he’s an absolute mess when dealing with this little girl. He’s unsure how to take her emotional bursts and more than once she makes him spit out a good portion of his daily quart of milk. She proposes that he trains her in the way of cleaning (killing people) and in return she will take care of the woman’s stuff: clothes, food and the likes. Leon agrees, more out of the major guilt trip she plays on him than anything else.

As the two begin to know each other better an interesting dynamic develops. We discover that Leon is as much of a child as she is, maybe even more so. He can’t read, has a clingy relationship with his plant and has protected himself from the bombastic evils of the outside world. It’s Mathilda who embodies more of what we’d expect from a hitman a she casually smokes on the street corner and swears like a sailor. Their relationship explores this fascinating split between the good and evil in each person. Mathilda wants to kill the murders of her family with a vengeance but still has the emotional stability of a young child.

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Well, perhaps she’s not that much of a child. Mathilda is on the cusp of puberty and is already experiencing those primal sexual urges. More than once she flaunts her newfound sexuality before Leon. At times it’s in playful cases such as when she dresses up as Madonna and sings “Like a Virgin” (a scene I’m sure a good portion of the audience found unsettling) or when she’s exercising in front of the TV. Other times it’s excessively blatant such as when she professes her love for Leon or all those scenes between the two where they drink milk. Nothing ever happens. Leon is, of all things, far too innocent to take advantage.

He’s got that glimmer of childlike wonder still in him, such as when he watches Gene Kelly in the movies. His eyes are wide with wonder and he looks back into the audience to share his excitement. All that’s there is an old man snoring in his seat, bored by the antics of a sentimentalized era. That scene sets the mood for the relationship. Despite the pedophilic undertone it’s a blatantly sentimental relationship that forms between the two.

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The scene also contains a key line “love has made me see things in a different way.” The film relentlessly finds different and compelling ways to shoot a given scene. There are a number of fantastic shoots from above and below, taking a different look at things. Even more fantastic is the scene where Leon picks up his job. It’s shot all in extreme close-ups: his eye through the sunglasses, the eye of the contact, an item on the table. It allows us all this space to fill out and expand upon without ever being disorienting.

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And it wouldn’t be a good Luc Besson film if that job didn’t lead to some ridiculous action. The opening action piece is a thoughtful cat and mouse sequence as Leon takes on an approach similar to Batman, striking fear into the hearts of his foes and slowly picking them off. But it’s way better than any scene in any Batman film, so much so that in a perfect and just world Luc Besson would be making the most insane Batman films that this universe could ever conceive. The last action set-piece is much more flamboyant, over-the-top and unrestrained and it fits perfectly with Besson’s ridiculous style. And the scene that follows it is one of the most beautiful shots of any film ever made.

The Professional, put simply, is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. Like many of the greats, such as A Clockwork Orange, it’s going to put off some people and you might be one of them. It is simultaneously both repulsive and sentimental in its storytelling and, for me, this rings deeply true to the human experience. Life has both moments of pure joy and love and hatred and obscenity. The Professional hits the highs and the lows and some people aren’t ready to take the plummet into the darkness of the human heart. It’s a shame, because they will miss out on the joyful moments as well but that’s the price you have to pay to experience honest art.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Léon: The Professional (Theatrical and Extended Edition) [Blu-ray]