You wanna be a cleaner?
(passes Mathilda a gun and bullets)
Here, take it.
It's a goodbye gift.
But not with me.
I work alone, understand?
Most of the marketing
focused on the assassin
and the violence...
...only rarely did we see
evidence of the relationship.
Gary Oldman as Stansfield
"Death is... whimsical... today."
I think I first saw The Professional in the theatre, but I knew I had to own it when it was released on video. I was unaware of the "uncut" version of writer-director Luc Besson's film, called Léon until about 1998. That version was the proverbial icing on the cake: it clarified the relationship between the professional assassin, or "cleaner," an unlikely innocent who reluctantly takes in a fully grown up 12-year-old girl whose her parents are murdered. He becomes her best friend, and she his.
And that's what I think this film is about: a relationship. It is what unsettles many critics (Roger Ebert, for one, who usually never sees a foreign film he doesn't like) and repels a few, but it is what makes the film better than its American marketing portrays. It isn't just about an assassin who teaches his trade to a minor. It's about the redeeming power of love, and how that love can transcend a thirty-year age difference. Obviously, The Professional / Léon isn't about a sexual relationship, but since most American critics (and most of Hollywood, too, for that matter) are incapable of imagining any other kind of relationship between members of the opposite sex, I suppose they felt it their duty to object. Many critics can't get beyond this pro forma moralizing and look with their own eyes and their own minds.
The Professional / Léon introduces us first to the perfect assassin, Léon (Jean Reno, a Spanish Frenchman, playing an Italian-American): rapid, silent, lethal, icy cold. It is that ice that is eventually pierced by 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman). But first we learn that Mathilda's abusive father (Michael Badalucco, seen on TV in "The Practice") and sister (Elizabeth Regen) are counterbalanced by her loving younger brother (Carl J. Matusovich). On his return from a "job," Léon sees Mathilda in the hallway, with a black eye.
Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?
Because her father displeased a corrupt DEA investigator, Norman Stansfield (scenery chewing by Gary Oldman), Mathilda's family is wiped out as she is shopping for Léon's milk. As we meet Stansfield, we get a glimpse of how over-the-top acting can be really effective. Oldman plays Stansfield as not only as a dirty narco-cop, but a drug-addicted one at that. And his swings of passion are truly scary: he talks to one of his men as if he hears music in his head, while blowing away four human beings...
Always like this.
I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. Can you hear it? It's like when you put your head to the grass and you can hear the growin' and you can hear the insects. Do you like Beethoven?
Mathilda passes by the murder scene as if she's only a neighbor and knocks on Léon's door at the end of the hall. Reno is so effective as the cool killer that you can see in his face and his eyes the consequences he must work out in his mind if he saves her life and lets her in. But he does let her in, and both are forever changed. Mathilda quickly learns what Léon does for a living: here he drinks his milk.
I couldn't really say.
Léon, what exactly do you do for a living?
She takes up his trade, does his laundry, and teaches the illiterate Léon to read. This is where the uncut (Léon) version of The Professional restores some of the sequences illustrating this, which in turn illustrate the development of the relationship. And Mathilda gets pretty good at it, too. But she also wants to see Stansfield and his men pay for killing -- not her family, whom she hated -- her little brother. She leaves Léon a note and trails Stansfield to the DEA office with a bagful of weapons. But Stansfield corners her in the bathroom.
You mean you're a hit man?
(Léon spits out his milk)
Do you "clean" anyone?
No women, no kids, that's the rules.
You killed my brother.
One of Stansfield's men interrupts, so Mathilda escapes into their custody, instead. And you can guess who rescues her. Léon is still efficient and lethal, but somewhere he lost his cool. Stansfield then goes after Léon. The resolution is a mixed effect, but Stansfield's last line, "Oh, shit" is masterful understatement.
I'm sorry. And you want to join him?
It's always the same thing. It's when you start to become really afraid of death that you learn to appreciate life. Do you like life, sweetheart?
That's good, because I take no pleasure in taking life if it's from a person who doesn't care about it.
The action is located in New York, but with Luc Besson at the helm it could have been Paris. He has a marvelous cinematic imagination and a good storytelling sense, with an edge to it that catapults his stories out of the ordinary. You see that in La Femme Nikita (1990) and it is really professionally displayed in The Professional / Léon. Rent or buy the uncut version, though, so you can get the rest of the story.
Léon (1994) 130 mins. (director's cut) Directed by Luc Besson. Written by Luc Besson. Cast: Jean Reno as Léon, Gary Oldman as Norman Stansfield, Natalie Portman as Mathilda, Danny Aiello as Tony, Peter Appel as Malky, Willie One Blood as Stansfield's Men/Willie Blood, Don Creech as Stansfield's Men, Keith A. Glascoe as Stansfield's Men, Randolph Scott as Stansfield's Man, Michael Badalucco as Mathilda's Father, Ellen Greene as Mathilda's Mother, Elizabeth Regen as Mathilda's Sister, Carl J. Matusovich as Mathilda's Brother, Frank Senger as Fatman, Lucius 'Cherokee' Wyatt as Tonto. Also known as: The Cleaner (1994); The Professional (1994) (USA).
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.
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