Sunday, March 25, 2007

Leon: The Professional

As visually stylish as it is graphically violent, this thriller directed by Luc Besson concerns Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12-year-old girl living in New York City who has been exposed to the sordid side of life from an early age: her family lives in a slum and her abusive father works for drug dealers, cutting and storing dope. Mathilda doesn't much care for her parents, but she has a close bond with her four-year-old brother. One day, she returns from running an errand to discover that most of her family, including her brother, have been killed in a raid by corrupt DEA agents, led by the psychotic Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Mathilda takes refuge in the apartment of her secretive neighbor, Leon (Jean Reno), who takes her in with a certain reluctance. She discovers that Leon is a professional assassin, working for Tony (Danny Aiello), a mob kingpin based in Little Italy. Wanting to avenge the death of her brother, Mathilda makes a deal with Leon to become his protege in exchange for work as a domestic servant, hoping to learn the hitman's trade and take out the men who took her brother's life. However, an affection develops between Leon and Mathilda that changes his outlook on his life and career. Besson's first American film boasted a strong performance from Jean Reno, a striking debut by Natalie Portman, and a love-it-or-hate-it, over-the-top turn by Gary Oldman. Léon was originally released in the U.S. in 1994 as The Professional, with 26 minutes cut in response to audience preview tests. Those 26 minutes were restored in the director's preferred cut, released in 1996 in France as Léon: Version Intégrale and in the U.S. on DVD as Léon: The Professional in 2000. (all movie guide)

This really is one of my favorite movies. I originally saw the edited American version which I thoroughly enjoyed but after seeing the original director's cut, I liked it even more. The American release was shortened, I'm sure, to bring the action sequences closer together because the average American movie patron can't or doesn't want to be bothered by annoying things like dialog or character development - particularly if it deals with the relationship between a grown man and a young girl. My point is that, for me, the developing relationship between Leon and Mathilda as well as the growth of each character is as engaging a story as the sinister plot and resulting action involving the drug dealers.

Jean Reno is amazingly uncomfortable and focused, shy and straightforward and clumsy and coldly precise depending on whether his character is in the everyday world of human interaction or his singular world of assassin. Mathilda is extremely well acted by Natalie Portman and, considering her age (11 years) at the time and the required range of the character, unusually believable. However, my absolute favorite performance in the movie is, without a doubt, that of Gary Oldman and it is, as mentioned in the synopsis, completely over-the-top, but, in my opinion, it was glorious. I so enjoy a movie where the antagonist has some type of flare and doesn't simply go through the motions of being the 'bad guy.' There are times in the movie where I found Oldman be scary but not so over the line as to become a caricature like certain 'Bond' villains have been known to do. My best description of Oldman's character would have to be, flamboyantly psychotic.

If you haven't seen the movie, give it a shot and, as usual, this is all merely my opinion and while I'm not trying to be definitive, I am hoping to possibly expand some horizons or give someone a couple hours of enjoyment that they would have otherwise missed out on.


Chris said...

Seen it. But I'm not sure if it was the edited or unedited version. Just watched Punch Drunk Love tonight. I find it a shame that Adam Sandler doesn't do straight rolls more often. His performance was fantastic in this flick.

John Taylor said...

hi chris
I agree about Sandler - in fact, I'd rather watch him in a straight roll - I find myself getting bored during his comedies. I intend to see his new drama with Don Cheadle - just not sure when.