No one exists in the world of Léon: The Professional except for the people who matter to the story. When guns are going wild in closed-in residential areas and grenades are blowing apartments to smithereens, no one seems to care. Except for an old lady who comes out once to inspect the carnage, every building, every apartment, and every interior corner of New York City is deserted.
No doubt this emptiness is a reflection of Léon’s life. Léon (Jean Reno) is a hitman — a bloody good one — and when he’s not terrorising disobedient mob bosses or slitting their throats, he’s at home, in his dingy New York apartment, tending to his beloved potted plant and cleaning his faithful weapons. He is a man of few words, and the words that do escape his lips tend to come out a little jumbled and senseless. His life dictates that he live alone, away from the company of other human beings. When you’re tasked with taking life, being surrounded by it can be as harmful as poison gas.
Léon cannot read or write. He fled France at a young age and came to New York, where a crooked but good-hearted Italian mobster (Danny Aiello) took him under his wing and introduced him to clandestine crime. The story begins proper when a crooked DEA chief named Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) storms a drug dealer’s apartment and massacres him and his family — the dealer’s youngest daughter, Matilda, is off buying groceries when the tragedy strikes. Upon returning, Maltida crosses her front door and pretends to be an associate of Léon’s, who lives a couple of doors down. He takes her in, and soon they develop a friendship that borders on romance some of the time, and a mentor-apprentice relationship others.
The movie is directed by Luc Besson, who rose up the ranks with La Femme Nikita in the early ’90s. Women play a strong role in his stories. La Femme Nikita chronicled the journey of a de-civilised woman from low-class mess to high-class mess. Yes, she had to travel through grimy waters first, but she made it in the end. In another of Besson’s pictures — released 3 years after Léon — he placed the fate of Earth in the hands of a woman, scantily-clad, with bright orange hair. She too went on a journey.
There’s no need to point out the strong female character in this movie. She is played, with an almost effortless refinement, by a young Natalie Portman, who holds her own against Reno and Oldman as if she’d been playing alongside them for years since her birth. What a gem she is. To think, she’s only 12. Somewhere within her lies the soul and talent of a much older Portman, one who has left the innocence of childhood behind and moved on to greater parts and greater movies. You can look into the character of Matilda and see the blueprints of Nina Sayers and Padmé Amidala.
Léon is a heavily stylised picture. As are all of Besson’s best works. Here he paints a picture of New York that is altogether familiar and foreign. When the camera is out for the wides, yes, that’s New York we’re looking at. We can see the long streets and streams of yellow taxis. But once the camera dives into private spaces, we are transported elsewhere. To Paris perhaps. Or Rome. The interiors of Besson’s locations have that rustic feel about them. They are not pristine like the apartments you’d expect to find in downtown Manhattan. Instead they belong in the countryside, and the bright yellow of Besson’s shots signals a warm sunrise, something rarely seen amidst the towering skyscrapers of the Big Apple. It’s a clever trick; it works with the movie’s theme of displacement.
And what of the idea of placing a 12-year old girl in the middle of drug lords, assassins and enough weaponry to buy out Ammunation? Matilda is like Hit Girl. You can either look at her and speak out against her character’s requirements, or you can observe her as part of a fictional narrative, where her youth is not so much a controversial gimmick as it is a necessity to the fundamentals of the plot. I enjoyed Matilda. She is a tortured soul. Too tortured for her age. She’s young and naive, yet she’s headstrong. Give her that pistol, I say. She knows how to handle it.
Best Moment | Léon’s and Matilda’s first hit together, and pretty much any scene with Portman in it.
Worst Moment | Matilda’s dead sister still visibly breathing after being shot in the back. *laughs*