Luc Besson’s 1994 cult classic is a revenge-fueled, violence-ridden crime thriller set in New York City, featuring the most unlikely of duos—a hitman and a 12-year old girl—whose unusual but special bond makes this film work.
French actor Jean Reno is Léon, a hitman (or “cleaner”) living a solitary and otherwise normal life in NYC’s Little Italy drinking milk, caring for a houseplant, and watching Gene Kelly films when he isn’t out shooting people. He is reserved and emotionless as he does his job, barely uttering a few words before taking his targets out. On the other hand, Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is a lonely young girl living next door with her dysfunctional and abusive family, first seen smoking cigarettes on the stairs to her apartment. After her family is murdered by corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), Mathilda seeks shelter with Léon, vowing to avenge the death of her brother, and he hesitantly agrees to train her.
The role of Léon was made for Jean Reno, whose deep voice and distant demeanor perfectly set up a contrast between him and his strong-willed assassin protégé. Mathilda marks Natalie Portman’s film debut, and at just age 12, Natalie gives an ingenious portrayal—her second best after Black Swan. Along with the iconic haircut and outfits, the depth of sophistication and maturity in her delivery cements Mathilda as one of the best modern child performances. The two establish a strong bond through compassion, empathy, and mutual love—my only trouble with this film is that I believe Besson took that love a little too far with all the undertones of sex. Their relationship is one of father and daughter, mentor and apprentice, two loyal outcasts with one goal in mind, but I felt highly uncomfortable once Mathilda introduced her sexual love for Léon, and I didn’t even watch the uncut French version.
As exceptional as the two central performances are, the true scene-stealer of The Professional is Gary Oldman, who plays the villain Stansfield. Oldman completes this film; we are captivated by his erratic malice and unexplained menace. He references Beethoven before killing in cold blood, pops pills in a disturbing fashion, and never seems to be clear-headed. Stansfield’s archetypal and notorious scream, “EVERYONE!” establishes him as one of cinema’s most unforgettable, over-the-top psychopaths.
The accompanying soundtrack by Eric Serra is also noteworthy, driving suspense at every corner under Besson’s direction. The music matches perfectly with the characters’ actions, especially in the scene where Léon opens the door for Mathilda after her family is massacred, her slight head tilt after being flooded with light the only indication of salvation.
I wouldn’t exactly call Léon: The Professional an action movie—it opens and closes with intense action sequences, but that is about it. Instead, care and compassion, insanity and mundanity, and tragedy and resilience are all themes interwoven into this classic, which is why it stays timeless.