Leon / The Professional / Luc Besson / The Streets
History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. So, apparently, do the films of Luc Besson. In 1992 he made "La Femme Nikita," which in its cold sadness told the story of a tough street girl who became a professional killer and then a civilized woman. Now he has made "The Professional," about a tough child who wants to become a professional killer, and civilizes the man she chooses as her teacher.
Besson seems fascinated by the "Pygmalion" story, by the notion of a feral street person who is transformed by education. He crosses that with what seems to be an obsession with women who kill as a profession. These are interesting themes, and if "The Professional" doesn't work with anything like the power of "La Femme Nikita," it is because his heroine is 12 years old, and we cannot persuade ourselves to ignore that fact. It colors every scene, making some unlikely and others troubling.
The film opens with one of those virtuoso shots which zips down the streets of New York and in through a door, coming to a sudden halt at a plate of Italian food and then looking up at its owner. Besson must have been watching the opening of the old Letterman show. The man eating the food is a mob boss, played by Danny Aiello, who wants to put a contract on a guy. The man who has come whizzing through the streets is Leon (Jean Reno), a skillful but uneducated "cleaner," or professional hitman.
We see him at work, in opening scenes of startling violence and grim efficiency. In the course of the movie, Leon will, in effect, adopt his neighbor Matilda (Natalie Portman), a tough, streetwise, 12-year old girl. She escapes to Leon's nearby apartment after her family has been wiped out by a crooked top DEA enforcer named Stansfield (Gary Oldman), who wants to kill her too. Matilda wants to hire Leon to avenge the death of her little brother; in payment, she offers to do his laundry.
Leon wants nothing to do with the girl, but she insists, and attaches herself like a leech. Eventually she develops an ambition to become a cleaner herself. And their fate plays out like those of many another couple on the lam, although with that 30-year age difference.
Matilda is played with great resourcefulness by Portman, who is required by the role to be, in a way, stronger than Leon. She has seen so many sad and violent things in her short life, and in her dysfunctional family, that little in his life can surprise her. She's something like the Jodie Foster character in "Taxi Driver," old for her years. Yet her references are mostly to movies: "Bonnie and Clyde didn't work alone," she tells him. "Thelma and Louise didn't work alone. And they were the best." (To find a 12-year old in 1994 who knows "Bonnie and Clyde" is so extraordinary that it almost makes everything else she does plausible.) So Leon finds himself saddled with a little sidekick, just when the manic Stansfield is waging a personal vendetta against him.
Although "The Professional" bathes in grit and was shot in the scuzziest locations New York has to offer, it's a romantic fantasy, not a realistic crime picture. Besson's visual approach gives it a European look; he finds Paris in Manhattan. That air of slight displacement helps it get away with various improbabilities, as when Matilda teaches Leon to read (in a few days, apparently), or when Leon is able to foresee the movements of his enemies with almost psychic accuracy.
This gift is useful during several action sequences in "The Professional," when Leon, alone and surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of law officers, is able to conceal himself in just such a way that when the cops enter an apartment in just such a manner, he can swing down from the ceiling, say, and blast them. Or he can set a trap for them. Or he can apparently teleport himself from one part of an apartment to another; they think they have him cornered, but he's behind them. So many of the movie's shoot-outs unfold so conveniently for him that they seem choreographed. The Oldman character sometimes seems to set himself up to be outsmarted, while trying to sneak up on Leon in any way not actually involving chewing through the scenery.
The premise "La Femme Nikita" was that its heroine began as a thoroughly uncivilized character without a decent bone in her body, and then, after society exploited her savagery, she was slowly civilized through the love of a good, simple man. "The Professional" uses similar elements, rearranged. It is a well-directed film, because Besson has a natural gift for plunging into drama with a charged-up visual style. And it is well acted.
But always at the back of my mind was the troubled thought that there was something wrong about placing a 12-year-old character in the middle of this action. In a more serious movie, or even in a human comedy like Cassavetes' "Gloria," the child might not have been out of place. But in what is essentially an exercise - a slick urban thriller - it seems to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it.
As the first American big-studio film about a man who dearly loves his houseplant, "The Professional" is bound to raise eyebrows. And raise them on both sides of the Atlantic, since this is the work of the film world's most attention-getting man without a country, Luc Besson.
In "La Femme Nikita," Mr. Besson stylishly melded American luridness with Gallic sophistication, though the violence level was enough to dismay French audiences and prompt a coarse American remake ("Point of No Return"). Emboldened by the success of that hybrid, Mr. Besson has now made a film in New York, featuring characters who speak like Americans, think like Frenchmen and behave appallingly in any language. "The Professional" lacks the sexy elan of "La Femme Nikita" and suffers from infinitely worse culture shock.
The man with the plant is Leon (Jean Reno), a gentle, childlike soul. He lives a quiet life, drinking milk and dusting his plant's leaves. ("It's my best friend," he says about the plant, thus helping more obtuse members of the audience. "Always happy. No questions. It's like me, you see.") He is also seen watching a Gene Kelly movie, which fills him with an innocent delight. How strange it is that he happens to be a paid killer!
By chance, a young girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman) becomes Leon's soul mate. This wistful, pretty creature is his neighbor in a New York apartment house, one of the many Manhattan locations that Mr. Besson films peculiarly, with a loving attention to other films about New York rather than New York life.
Leon sometimes sees the girl in the hallway, where she sits smoking pensively, wearing the bobbed hair, black choker and striped jersey that make her look like a mini-Parisian streetwalker and certainly like a pederast's delight. "Is life always this hard?" she asks Leon one day. "Or just when you're a kid?"
"Always, I guess," Leon thoughtfully replies.
Mathilda's life becomes hard when her entire sleazy family is rubbed out by Gary Stansfield (Gary Oldman), a fantastically corrupt drug-enforcement agent who says things like "Death is whimsical today." In this preposterous role, Mr. Oldman expresses most of the film's sadism as well as many of its misguidedly poetic sentiments. During the buildup to an ugly shootout, he even claims that the calm before the storm reminds him of Beethoven, a thought that may help viewers get through the nastiness that follows. (Mr. Oldman will actually be playing Beethoven in another, less gun-toting movie, "Immortal Beloved," soon.)
Among the condescending American stereotypes with which Mr. Besson has filled "The Professional" (Danny Aiello plays a mobster who does business out of an Italian restaurant), there are elevating cinematic references. Leon checks into a hotel using the Hitchcockian name MacGuffin. And he is seen playfully imitating John Wayne ("O.K., Peelgreem!").
These touches all underscore the idea that Leon has a true sweetness, and that he and Mathilda can redeem each other with the purity of their platonic love. Although she begs Leon to teach her how to be a hit person, claiming to be interested in "the theory" of such work, "The Professional" is much too sentimental to sound shockingly amoral in the least. Even in a finale of extravagant violence, it manages to be maudlin.
Mr. Reno, who also appeared in "La Femme Nikita" and Mr. Besson's "Subway," plays Leon with a soulful air that overstresses his superiority to a brutish world. Ms. Portman, a ravishing little gamine, poses far better than she acts.
"The Professional" is full of howling mistakes that emphasize its alienness, like the call to Mathilda's incredibly sordid household from the starchy headmistress of the private school Mathilda supposedly attends. Mathilda eventually digs a hole for Leon's houseplant on the school's grounds, giving it symbolic life without realizing it will die in the first frost.
"The Professional" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes a great deal of graphic violence. THE PROFESSIONAL Written and directed by Luc Besson; director of photography, Thierry Arbogast; edited by Sylvie Landra; music by Eric Serra; production designer, Dan Weil; Gaumont/Les Films du Dauphin production, released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 112 minutes. This film is rated R. WITH: Jean Reno (Leon), Gary Oldman (Gary Stansfield), Natalie Portman (Mathilda) and Danny Aiello (Tony).