Somewhere in Manhattan, a drug lords holds up for the day in an armored penthouse with a small army of bodyguards. He’s there to count money, divvy up drugs, sleep with a dial-up mistress, maybe do a little extra business somewhere and then get out of town before anybody notices he was there. But shortly after arriving, a mysterious and silent figure arrives on the scene. He looks an odd, marginally socialized weirdo with third-hand clothes and a vacant look on his face that suggests to a thousand-yard stare, mental deficiency, or both. But looks can be deceiving, and the guy moves like a shadow, dispatching the the drug lord’s entire retinue of bodyguards, getting through the penthouse’s armored shutters, and putting a knife to the drug lord’s throat before anybody can call 911. I often say that you can judge an action movie by the merits of its first violent sequence, and by that criteria, The Professional (also known as Léon, and Léon: The Professional) should be one of the best action movies ever made. And boy, is it ever.
The story involves Léon, a simpleton drifter (played by Jean Reno) with no personal attachments, almost no property except for a suitcase full of guns and grenades, and a self-imposed code as a professional hitman: No women, no kids. He works freelance for the Italian mob as a euphemistically titled “cleaner,” taking out targets all over town. Down the hall from him lives Mathilda, a streetwise 12-year-old girl (played by Natalie Portman, in an impressive debut) whose abusive father works as a drug mule for a bunch of corrupt DEA agents led by the unhinged Stansfield (played to the hilt by Gary Oldman). When Stansfield finds out that Mathilda’s dad has been skimming the drugs he’s supposed to be watching, Stansfield kills him and his entire family. Léon takes her in, breaking his own cardinal rule of never getting attached to anything more entangling than a houseplant. He agrees to train her to be a cleaner, too, and the pair form an unlikely bond as two misfits without anyone else in the world to trust or turn to. Eventually, Mathilda’s entanglement with Stansfield catches up with her, and Léon must go to her rescue. When he realizes Mathilda is worth fighting for, maybe even worth dying for, he realizes what it is he’s been missing out on all this time. And that’s when we learn that sometimes, a man with nothing left to lose isn’t half as dangerous as a man with something to protect.
This is one of my favorite movies ever. It’s an early effort from French writer, director and producer Luc Besson, whose weird French take on everything ranges from an almost charming misunderstanding of the various details of New York city life, to a no-holds-barred willingness to use violence as both a means and an end in a story about blood, honor, revenge, sacrifice, love, fury, growth, rebirth, death…and Mozart. Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman are all in top form here, featured before they got particularly famous, when their talents were as unexpected to a lot of audiences as they were formidable. This movie really helped to open my eyes to the power of international cinema; I had not seen a lot of foreign movies before this, but afterwards, I realized that you don’t have to be in Hollywood to make one of the world’s best movies, even in a genre that is absolutely jam-packed with competition.
There are so many memorable scenes in this movie, most of which involve the relationship between Léon, who is kind of a child in a man’s body, and Mathilda, who is kind of a woman in a child’s body. This sets up an unusual element where Mathilda decides she is in love with Léon, but every time she mentions it, all it does is make Léon do a spit take. This movie probably didn’t need a strange, bullet-driven Lolita subplot, but somehow it works, because it elevates this thing beyond a kindly adult looking after a kid. As weird and as unworkable as their relationship can be, Léon and Mathilda are on strangely equal footing, and both realize that each has rescued the other, in their own way.
Speaking of rescues, the moment of truth is early on, during Stansfield’s slaughter of Mathilda’s family. Léon hears the gunshots out in the hall and takes up a position by his door, ready to clean out the entire hallway if the action get any closer to his place. We know from the movie’s prologue that Stansfield and his men are really no match for Léon. Hell, even the NYPD’s SWAT team is no match for Léon. But he’s not going to exposing himself to unwanted attention. And yet, Mathilda has previously encountered him enough times in the stairwell—perhaps reminding him of a childhood where one imagines a strange, lonely boy left to survive the roughest neighborhoods of Paris on his own—to know to turn to him for help. She quietly begs to be let in before one of Stansfield’s men catches on that she is a target and opens fire. We watch tears stream down Mathilda’s face, wondering if this stranger with no personality will deem her worthy of saving. And then, the door opens, and Mathilda is brought inside, and we know that Léon might be a man without connections, and he might be a hardened killer, but he’s got a code. And he won’t violate it, even if it means destroying everything he knows. And even though it does, Léon would be the first to tell you that it was worth it. Putting it all on the line to help somebody in need is always worth it. Even a guy like Léon knows that.