Léon (1994)

Léon (1994)
  • Time: 110 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama | Thriller
  • Director: Luc Besson
  • Cast: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman


Leon is a first-class hit man, but is also a sensitive guy who loves his potted plants. He is moral: “No women, no children” is his professional motto. He is sympathetic to his neighbor, Mathilda, a typically rebellious twelve-year-old who has trouble with her family. But when her father runs afoul of drug kingpin Norman Stansfield, Mathilda turns to Leon for assistance.


  • Luc Besson (Transporter, Taken, The Fifth Element) directs the intense visceral and compelling action/drama of Leon, released in the USA as The Professional. It could be called as a karate kid film…except with guns and assassins. I was left wondering to myself at the end why wasn’t this film given even one nomination in direction or acting. Now it is considered as one of the best films ever made… at the very least it is one of the finest cinematic experience of the 1990’s.

    Leon is a “cleaner” or a hit-man living in Little Italy. He has learned to suppress emotions and feelings and lives his life in a little apartment working for Tony, a mob boss. His life is turned around when 12 year old Mathilda who lives on the same floor and has been recently orphaned comes to him for help. Leon grudgingly helps her at first but soon discovers his own inner child.

    All the scenes are shot beautifully and the action sequences are well planned. The score works well with the film. The acting is superb especially from Natalie Portman who played young Mathilda in her debut film at just the age of 13. She displays her emotions well with her body behavior and immaculate expressions. She was born with the talent. Jean Reno (Pink Panther, The Da Vinci Code) does a good role as Leon, the mentally slow and emotionally dumb hit-man for whom you start to feel. Making someone feel for a hit-man is certainly not easy. Danny Aiello as Tony also gives a good performance and delivers as required.

    Gary Oldman does such an intense, quirky, interesting and terrifying role as the corrupt DEA officer Norman Stansfield that he deserved at least an Oscar nomination. He gives an absolutely electrifying performance and the fact that he improvised one of the best scenes in the film proves his acting chops.

    The film is not for the fainthearted and the action never feels to be artificial or deliberate. The story, while basic, incorporates all the elements for an interesting 2 hours. It’s a cinematic success about innocence destroyed and innocence reborn. The cast show that there is no substitute for good acting and you don’t need special effects to make a good action film. While the accolades are missing, Leon-the professional is definitely a cult classic.

  • Director Luc Besson reportedly took only thirty days to write the script and another ninety to shoot Leon: The Professional. Intended to be a casual, filler movie in between La Femme Nikita (1990) and The Fifth Element (1997), the latter a futuristic sci-fi action-thriller he wanted to make with Bruce Willis, Leon: The Professional has ironically become Besson’s most accomplished film to date.

    This revered action-drama is now regarded as one of the classic 1990s action films, yet for all of its seemingly Hollywood-style bombast, it retains a unique arthouse sensibility. Leon: The Professional stars Jean Reno as the title character, a man whose job is to “clean” men who have crossed the line in the organized crime business. There is no doubt he is a cold-blooded killer but he does his job so effectively that he is immunized against fear.

    When not clinically executing lowly criminals, he tends to his green plant that he regards as his best friend in a small apartment. Now, that very same building and floor where he lives resides a very dysfunctional family who is about to get busted by a crooked, sadistic cop called Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his men.

    Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a young, rebellious girl who goes out to buy milk that fateful day returns to see her entire family murdered. She smartly avoids her apartment where Stansfield’s men are still there and walks straight to Leon’s door. She knocks in despair, and the rest is history.

    Stylistically influenced by a host of action films including the John Woo-Chow Yun Fat films of the late 1980s, Leon: The Professional in my opinion draws most inspiration from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film whose Robert De Niro-Jodie Foster character axis mirrors that of Reno-Portman’s.

    Portman, in her feature film debut, gives a stunning performance that is perhaps only matched by her Oscar-winning endeavor in Black Swan (2010). She plays Mathilda without inhibition, often with a balance of vulnerability and sensuality that makes her so attractive to the audience and Leon. Leon plays the father figure who becomes protective of Mathilda, who desires for revenge against Stansfield.

    Surprisingly for an action film, the relationship between the two leads is developed intricately. Leon teaches Mathilda how to use tools of carnage (I am not surprised if this film inspired Kick-Ass (2010)), while the latter shows affection, and I daresay, lust for him.

    There is an awkward sexual tension that seems to ripple beneath the faux father-daughter relationship, but it never threatens to overwhelm the drama. Besson shows that he is equally at ease with directing his cast as with directing the film’s action sequences. The fluid camerawork excellently establishes the cinematic space in which the action is executed, especially in the climax when Leon has to single-handedly protect Mathilda and fend off an entire SWAT team. The use of music heightens the suspense, and effective brings the film experience a notch higher.

    Leon: The Professional is the quintessential action film, and is certainly one of the greatest examples on how to make one that follows a set narrative structure, yet leaving enough leeway to explore less conventional paths. You won’t want to miss this anytime when it is showing. Especially when Oldman is lip-smackingly playing the villain.

    GRADE: A (9/10)

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