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Review: Leon: The Professional (1994)

Leon: The Professional (1994)

Directed by: Luc Besson

Premise: An assassin (Jean Reno) takes in a little girl (Natalie Portman) whose family has been murdered by drug dealers and he teaches her his craft. 

What Works: Leon is a standout assassin picture. This is a film that has been widely imitated in lots of other assassin-themed pictures such as Taken, Man on Fire, The Boondock Saints, Ghost Dog, and The Transporter but few films have done the assassin story as well as this one. The film includes successful action sequences that are unique in part because they are done in a very efficient way. Leon does not use a lot of elaborate gun play or hand-to-hand combat; much of the action is effective because of clever and crafty cinematic decisions that use restraint to increase the impact of the violence. Writer and director Luc Besson is known for creating unique characters, and Leon is no exception. Jean Reno plays the title character and he has many of the stereotypical traits of movie hit men; he is socially withdrawn, lives alone, and is haunted by his profession. Yet, Reno and the script allow the character charm and humanity. Leon does not hate the world and the kindness and love he shows the little girl has a lot of authenticity to it; this contrasts with the cold efficiency of his violence. Playing the villain is Gary Oldman, in his characteristic (if perhaps standard) mode as an eccentric madman. Oldman’s character is intended as a manic counterpoint to Reno’s assassin; this is a conflict between the unprincipled psychopath and an honorable warrior and the contrast between those two characters sharpens each man’s story turf. The most striking performances in the film is provided by Natalie Portman, as the orphaned young girl. Portman was just eleven years old when Leon was filmed but her character has a lot of dimension and is very complex. With her character, Leon travels into very difficult and potentially scandalous territory as Portman’s young girl falls in love with Leon and makes her desires known to him. Leon of course rebuffs the girl and maintains his dignity and morality, and the filmmakers don’t use this storyline for exploitative purposes. Portman’s character experiences love for the first time and the film deals with that complex and potentially explosive experience in an honest way. This subplot and the complicated relationship between Leon and his protégé is fascinating, brave, and adds a lot of humanity to the picture. Notably, a lot of this relationship was not seen in the original presentation of Leon in theaters or on DVD but it has been restored to what is known as the “international cut” of the film and the added footage brings essential character and plot development to the story.

What Doesn’t: Although Leon is an important and well-made film, it is not for everyone. The love story is likely to turn off a certain segment of the audience because it is not the kind of fantasy love story that Hollywood often turns out. This is a forbidden love, and one of confused and distorted feelings and it requires the audience to be intellectual about it. Also, as an action film, Leon does not have the kinds of the shootouts and chases that are often associated with the genre.

DVD extras: The uncut international version is twenty-four minutes longer and includes an isolated music score, trailers, and image galleries.

Bottom Line: Leon is a well made action film about life, death, love, and killing that, although often imitated (even by its own writer/director), has never been quite equaled. While it may not be for everyone it is worth viewing by those who can appreciate it.

Episode: #335 (April 17, 2011)