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The Professional: Luc Besson’s 1994 classic

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michael-author-iconThe Professional is one of my favorite ’90s movies. It’s a film that could easily have been one of the many entertaining-but-disposable action thrillers by director Luc Besson, but for three things: The cast, the original, risky romantic storyline, and the unique chemistry.

Particularly the chemistry between Jean Reno, portraying the socially-isolated, emotionally damaged professional hitman Léon, and Natalie Portman, in her first substantial role, as Léon’s unlikely protégé, Mathilda. Benefiting from Luc Besson’s characteristically shallow, flashy visual style; noir-ish cinematography, craftsmanlike pacing, and pop music flourishes, it’s become a minor cult classic.

Did I say romantic? While the story of Léon and Mathilda explores an unlikely bond between a lonely assassin who becomes a surrogate-parent figure to a displaced orphan whose parents were killed by a crooked-cop drug dealer, it also becomes darkly romantic. Mathilda wants to Léon to teach her how to become a trained killer, a “cleaner”, like him, in exchange for her taking care of Léon’s neglected domestic life ; doing his laundry, going to the store for milk, and cleaning his tiny NYC apartment, including cleaning and maintaining the tools of his trade, his cache of guns. What great love story doesn’t begin like this?

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Naturally this leads to Mathilda developing an emotional attachment to Leon, which she perceives as romantic love. Luc Besson, taking what should be an unwelcome idea for a character study – a young teen female character falling in love with a middle-aged male character – but the effort succeeds, because it’s not sensational. it’s funny, delicate, and chaste. Their doomed romance is transformative, for both characters, and handled in a disarming, sincere, wryly-comedic way. Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked as well as it did. It would have turned audiences, and critics, against it.

Some critics, Roger Ebert, for example, were uneasy with the romantic element of the story, and gave The Professional an unfavorable score. I respect Ebert’s view. It’s true, Besson walked right up to the line with this story, too close for some, at the margins of taboo subject matter. And by 2017 standards (as opposed to its release date, in 1994) it’s well over the line of what’s acceptable to portray in a contemporary movie. This movie probably couldn’t be made today.

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Instead of turning audiences away, however, it grew in stature to become a minor classic. Due in no small part to Jean Reno’s well-balanced characterization. (the actor described his method of  being strategically passive, while Natalie Portman’s Mathilda character served as the primary navigator) And in large measure due to the discovery of a promising, unknown actress Natalie Portman. “Léon the Professional” is Portman’s first leading-lady performance. Really, it’s her very first movie. And even to those who aren’t fans of Natalie Portman (or perhaps because we’re not Portman fans) it might stand, to this day, as her best film role.

Besson’s pop sensibilities are on display here, with its memorable soundtrack. I never would have imagined that a Bjork song could embed itself into the quiet corners of a violent action film, as a sentimental, atmospheric, almost-perfect score, contributing to its enduring appeal. Here’s a key scene:

Fans of this movie have practically begged for a Professional” sequel. A new chapter with the adult Portman, as a professional killer, carrying on the tradition of her mentor, Leon. Something the director has not ruled out. But has also never committed to. Luc Besson has probably waited too long, or has made attempts on paper that don’t live up to original. I predict it’ll never happen. Which is unfortunate. An adult Natalie Portman playing a jaded assassin would be a lot of fun, wouldn’t it?

In which case, we should be grateful that the movie stands on its own, without a disappointing sequel to diminish this mid-90s B-movie treasure. Like any goodcharacter-driven thriller, The Professional holds up to repeated viewings.

Also noteworthy is Gary Oldman‘s performance. Fans celebrate Oldman’s drug-addled dirty-cop bad-guy character as a standout performance. While I enjoy Oldman’s high-octane baddassery, I personally find that it doesn’t wear as well as other aspect of the movie. I could do with less of the now too-familiar trope of “murderous sociopath who also happens to love Beethoven”. (criminals and killers rarely have refined, cultivated tastes, like Dr. Hannibal Lecter, they’re generally just stupid and dangerous) But to his credit, Oldman’s flamboyant, over-the-top approach to the character helps balance out the sentimental, nuanced aspects of the Leon and Mathilda story.

Luc Besson is a peculiar success story as an action director. A native French director, pouring out decades of big box office, big-budget Hollywood-style violent action thrillers? Yeah, so, that happened. Besson has written more moderately-successful action movies than people realize (“Taken“, anyone?) and the scripts that he’s both written and directed have a mixed record. La Femme Nikita, from 1990, is a French-language crossover classic, a solid hit. Besson’s historic epic “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc“, from 1999, featuring Milla Jovovich and Dustin Hoffman, is a mostly terrible movie with flashes of intoxicating brilliance. The star-driven “Lucy,” from 2014, was a heavily-promoted prestige project that missed the mark, misusing the talents of Scarlett Johansson. (perhaps her worst film role, unable to overcome the awful script) There are too many in between to count, a long string of stylish, violent action movies, many with good character details.

Luc Besson career has certainly produced a big body count, and some memorable characters, the best of which are, inarguably, Reno’s portrayal of Leon, and Natalie Portman’s timeless Mathilda.

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Read more reviews here. Bonus video:

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