From Léon: The Professional, I learned a few things about becoming a hitman. First, you need to drink milk instead of alcohol. It’s a rule, apparently, although it gets broken once in this film to hilarious results. Secondly, being a hitman is not difficult. In fact, a twelve-year-old girl can become one if she’s trained for a few days. All you need to do is know where to shoot a gun, and do a few situps every day. Finally, you don’t need to know how to read to become a hitman, although it does occasionally help your cause.
As you’ve no doubt figured out, Léon: The Professional has a hitman in it. They’re referred to as “cleaners” in the film, and our “professional” from the title is named Léon (Jean Reno). He only drinks milk, he cares deeply for a plant that he carries around with him, and he has a heart, although how big the heart is will be tested over the course of the film. He’s neighbors with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the twelve-year-old I mentioned earlier. She lives in an abusive household, and he feels sorry for her. She’s beaten quite frequently, and he takes note of this, despite not doing anything about it. He’s too reserved for that.
One day, thanks to her father’s idiocy in messing with drug dealers, her entire family is murdered. Luckily for her, she was sent to get groceries. Léon takes her in for the night, but she ends up staying longer than that. The murderers were led by a corrupt DEA officer (Gary Oldman), who loves his classical music, even if it does get a little boring after the introduction. Or so he tells her father before killing the man. He’s not only just corrupt, he’s crazy. Of course, you expect this since Gary Oldman is playing him, but that type of cartoon character almost doesn’t fit in a film like this. I say “almost” because it still ends up working, but a more down-to-Earth portrayal probably would have been better.
After taking Mathilda in, Léon is forced into teaching her how to become a hitman. She claims that she’ll kill herself if he doesn’t, and she actually comes very close to doing so. She wants revenge, and since she doesn’t have the money to pay Léon, she’s going to learn how to kill so that she can do it herself. How much training the foul-mouthed girl needs is another story, as she earlier shows that she knows how to handle a gun. Regardless, the plot concerns the training of Mathilda, as well as the budding relationship between her and her mentor.
Yes, I said “relationship.” What of it? While it’s not made especially clear what extents this relationship grows to, and exactly how Léon feels about Mathilda, she claims multiple times to be in love with him. It often seems more like a father/daughter relationship to me, although maybe not to her. It almost gets to the point where her dialogue is somewhat creepy, in that she says things we don’t expect her to understand, let alone say. I can see how this can be off-putting, and while I was put off occasionally, I was also curious as to how far writer/director Luc Besson would take this, which kept me watching.
The best parts of Léon: The Professional are the scenes in which Léon is allowed to act like a hitman instead of a father. Watching him silently eliminating many men at one time is fascinating, even if he does seem to move faster than is possible. He plans these murders, and then he follows through with them in the most efficient way that he’s capable of. It’s a shame that there are only a couple of these moments, although the first scene includes one which gives us an instant hook.
The worst moments come near the end, which is a loud shootout involving a bunch of faceless police officers who are somehow coaxed into trying to kill Léon and Mathilda. It’s such a departure from the smooth, calm demeanor of the rest of the film, and it also forces the film to conclude in a far more abrupt manner than it deserved. I’m not going to spoil how it ends, although it’s unlikely to surprise you, even if when it finished might.
Since we spend most of the film’s runtime with these two characters, they need to be well-acted. Thankfully, they are. Jean Reno is the more quiet, reserved character, although he’s capable of some high-energy action scenes. Natalie Portman is more obnoxious and outspoken, likely due to her age. But when they get to know one another, they begin to start sharing personality traits and developing as characters. There are character arcs here, even if the villain sings one note throughout, never changing his tune, pitch or melody. He may take inspiration from Beethoven, but he has nowhere near as much depth.
Actually, when I think about it, a weak antagonist is the biggest issue I have with Léon: The Professional. Granted, it’s not exactly a film that’s about good guys and bad guys doing battle, but had there been a stronger villain, we’d have a more interesting climax. Instead, we have this cartoon character who we simply cannot take seriously. Improve the villain — give us a credible threat — and you have an exceptional film. As it is, we just have a very good one.
Léon: The Professional is a great film that needed a better villain to propel it into the upper echelon of films. But it has interesting, deep and well-acted characters, as well as some very fun action scenes. The ending action scene needed to be changed, and the finale didn’t need to come as quickly as it did, but on the whole, I had a really fun time with it. I can see some people getting creeped out by the relationship between the two main characters, but it intrigued me more than it put me off watching the film. This is a film you should definitely give a chance.