Lion the Professional

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Mathilda, the Professional's Apprentice

Apr 2, 2004 (Updated Dec 23, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Action Factor:
  • Special Effects:
  • Suspense:

Pros:Fascinating human relationship, plenty of action, humor, and strong performances

Cons:Lots of violence and precocity in a twelve year-old girl that some may find troubling

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended as an artsy action film with a unique human dynamic, great performances, and an endearing debut by Natalie Portman


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

There’s no denying it! I like this film a lot. I have to admit that up-front. The problem for me is understanding why I like it despite it going against one of my foremost precepts for distinguishing good films from poor ones. I dislike gratuitous violence and this film is chock full of it, especially near the beginning and near the end. I do like an occasional action film as a change-up from drama and comedies, but even then I expect an action film to deliver at least some minimal kind of human interest, enlightenment, or interesting message, along the way. I suppose that Léon must do that for me at some level. There’s not much by way of message or enlightenment, but there’s some pretty darn interesting human interest in the form of a rather unique, peculiar, and touching relationship. The middle section of the film is unquestionably the part that I enjoy the most, followed by the opening segment, and the closing action scene least. That, I suppose, is indicative of what it is that I find so appealing with this film. Let’s consider what each of these segments encompasses.

The film opens with a camera shot passing down a New York street, before entering the door of a deli and settling on a plate of Italian food. At lunch is a low level racketeer, played by Danny Aiello, who wants to put out a contract on a mobster who is trying to move in on his territory. The man being offered the contract is Léon (Jean Reno), a hitman or “cleaner” in the parlance of this film. With the contract settled, the story now proceeds to the main opening segment, which is a violent action sequence in which Léon skillfully and systematically eliminates the entire security force of the targeted mobster, while hardly mussing his own hair and without ever being seen by his adversaries. It is a surreal kind of violence in that it all proceeds without the protagonist, Léon, being in the least bit of jeopardy, as if Léon were some kind of superhero hitman. Léon ultimately comes up behind his target, sticks a knife against his neck, and has the poor frightened-to-death slob call the man at the deli so that he can be “reasoned” with about leaving town. It has the feel of fantasy action and violence, not reality, and is therefore entertaining but not particularly distressing.

Léon is truly professional as an assassin. He lives a grim and lonely life in a sparsely furnished apartment. His only attachment is to a plant that he cares for, by watering it, placing it out on the fire-escape by day, and bringing it in at night. He sleeps sitting in a chair facing the door with a gun on the table beside him. He has a veritable arsenal of weapons and devices for his trade, keeps himself in tip-top shape, and loves milk. He even has his professional ethics: he never kills women or children.

The real fun for me in this film begins when Léon heads back to his apartment after his day’s work. In the hallway, he encounters a 12 year-old little girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who lives in a neighboring apartment on Léon’s floor. She likes to hang out in the stairwell and smoke cigarettes, to get away from her extremely dysfunctional family. Léon notices that she has bruises but minds his own business. Her father, played by Michael Badalucco, is a drug dealer for the local drug kingpin, Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Stansfield is also head of the local DEA and a pill-popping, psychotic killer who enjoys murdering to the accompaniment of music and relishing his victim’s fear. Mathilda’s father rather stupidly skims off the top by cutting the drugs. His wife is a prostitute, but is not Mathilda’s mother and treats Mathilda badly. Her half sister is a bully. Mathilda’s only ally in her family is her little five-year-old brother.

The next day when Léon is returning from a Gene Kelly movie at the local theater (clearly he has a sentimental side), he again runs into Mathilda and notices she has a bloody nose. He offers her his handkerchief and she in return offers to run an errand for Léon, to buy him his precious milk from the local grocery. Lucky for her, because while she is gone, Stansfield and his gang of hoodlums show up at her family’s apartment and massacre the whole lot. Mathilda returns, sees what’s happening, and has the presence of mind to walk right past without letting on that she’s part of the same family. She stops at Léon’s door, knocks, and tearfully begs him to open the door. Léon is at first reluctant, but finally lets her into his apartment, not realizing that in so doing, he has also let her into his heart.

What now transpires is the most improbable of relationships (and what makes the film worthwhile). Mathilda is an amazing mix of wide-eyed innocence and Lolita-like premature sophistication. Léon puts her up for the night and at one point seriously considers killing her as she is sleeping, going so far as to put a gun to her head. He also tries to encourage her to leave the next day, but when she threatens to play Russian Roulette to demonstrate her determination to stay with him, he relents. When Mathilda learns what Léon does for a living, she says, simply, “Cool!” It even sets her to thinking that she wants to become a “cleaner” so as to avenge her little brother’s murder. She suggests a deal: she will do Léon’s laundry and shopping and he will take her on as an apprentice and teach her the tricks of the trade.

This sets the stage for a whole series of wonderful vignettes that develop the relationship between Léon and Mathilda. There is one scene in which they get into a water fight. There is another scene where first Mathilda and then Léon act out various film characters portrayed by famous actresses or actors. This particular scene is the only instance where I have ever used the DVD menu option to go directly to a particular scene. I’ve watched it separate from the rest of the movie several times. It is utterly charming. Mathilda teaches Léon how to read. Léon, like any good surrogate dad, teaches Mathilda how to clean and load a gun and how to work out and drink her milk! While he is teaching her how to kill, she is teaching him how to live. Although Mathilda soon falls in love with her protector, Léon is entirely honorable in his dealings with her. Although he is coming to love her, it is in a fatherly way, not romantically or sexually.

The third segment of the film I’ll not relate here so as not to spoil the twists and surprises. Suffice it to say that it consists mainly of an extended showdown between Léon and Stansfield, with violence enough to satisfy the most ardent taste for such stuff. I’ll only add further that Léon finds a kind of redemption through his love for his little apprentice.

Production Values: Director Luc Besson’s best known work prior to Léon was the 1992 film La Femme Nikita, that deals with a tough, violent street girl who is turned into a professional killer for the state before being redeemed by love. Here we see the same set of themes operating again but rearranged a bit. Here we have a tough street girl who hooks up with a violent professional killer, redeeming him by love. Another commonality is that the “bad guys” in both films are elements of the societal establishment (police or government) while the “good guys” are criminal assassins. This inversion of roles is less problematic for me as a viewer than it might be for some others since I am already fully convinced that governments routinely commit far more crime than do criminals. Beeson directs this story with great skill, creating a stylish film that’s visually electric and packed with energy. He provides us with an action film that is also artsy, humorous, and laced with the kind of human interest characteristic of continental European films.

Natalie Portman is utterly endearing and enchanting in her performance, here, as Mathilda. She was just twelve years of age at the time, but delivers an incredibly sophisticated acting job. As far as I’m concerned, this film is first and foremost Portman’s triumph, although Reno and Oldman are excellent as well.

Several reviewers complained about the performance of Gary Oldman as Stansfield. Every one of these complaints centered on the term “over-the-top.” A couple of reviewers, on the other hand, raved about Oldman’s take on this role. One states that it “marks the pinnacle of Gary Oldman’s mesmerizing career.” I’m totally in the camp that praises Oldman’s performance in this film. It is delightfully over-the-top – in a way that reinforces the surreal feel of the film. He is evil in a demented way – almost a caricature of a bad cop. He is one scary guy. For me, it makes all of the violence more palatable.

Reno’s performance as Léon is a miracle of understatement. It is an entirely deadpan performance, providing the perfect contrast with Portman’s exuberant performance and Oldman’s chilling performance. His vocal lines are delivered calmly in basso profundo, his facial expressions are minimized, but he still manages to convey the inner feelings of his character through gestures and body movements.

American Censorship: Back in 1994, when this film was released for theater distribution in America, it was under the title The Professional and had 24 minutes of scenes excised. All of the excised material came from the middle portion of the film and related to the relationship between Léon and Mathilda. Any segments suggestive of sexual interest on her part or other behaviors deemed inappropriate for a twelve year-old (drinking, swearing) were censored. It is utterly amazing to me that censors in America have no trouble with any amount of violence but cringe at the hint of sexual ideas or profanity in a twelve year-old, even when the male in this relationship, Léon, behaves as the model of discretion in his dealings with the female child. It is also telling that the scenes in which Mathilda is seen smoking were less problematic for American censors than the scene in which she consumes champagne. Tobacco kills many more people each year than does alcohol. For me, these are signs of seriously misplaced priorities in American society, particularly as relates to the entertainment industry. In my opinion, there is too little concern with violent content and too much concern about sexuality. Since the scenes that were removed all relate to the development of the relationship between Léon and Mathilda, their deletion severely diminished the human interest part of this film and transformed in into more of the straight violent action film that is so much a part of Hollywood fare. For those who are purchasing the film for the first time or who have only seen the cut American version, I highly recommend purchasing the restored version (entitled “Leon, the Professional”) on DVD. It is a vastly superior product. I should add, however, that the DVD has very few special features over and above the great film. There are just a few theatrical trailers and talent files.

Bottom-Line: If you enjoy action combined with a highly original human dynamic, run out and rent or buy this film – but make sure it is the extended version with the 24 minutes reinserted. The extended version is entitled “Leon, the Professional” while the older, shorter, American release is called just “The Professional.” The European version was entitled “Leon”, so between the three versions, they’ve got all the title combinations covered! This film is rated R for violence, language, and mature themes. The long version is 132 minutes so the shorter version must be 108 min. The uncut version is in English with a choice of subtitles in English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese.


Recommend this product? Yes


Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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