Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Leon: The Professional (1994)

It is well known that Americans are extremely prudish about sex. It's not really the act itself that makes us squeamish; Americans consume more pornography than fast-food burgers. But when it comes to frank discussions about sexuality in general, we get extremely nervous. We are comfortable with sex only when the issue is kept superficial.

To state that is nothing new or profound. But why use that as a starting point for a discussion of an action film that has no sex or nudity in even a single one of its frames? Well, the film in question is one that had hetero men waiting seven years for a time when it would no longer be disgusting to fap to Natalie Portman.

Leon: The Professional takes its inspiration from many places. The plot is essentially a remake of John Cassavete's Gloria with the protagonists' sexes switched. Director Luc Besson revisits and revamps the minor character of "Victor the Cleaner" from La Femme Nikita and turns him into an Italian hitman named Leon, played by Frenchman Jean Reno. Like Victor, Leon is dispassionate and efficient killer. Sent on assignments by his benefactor, a Little Italy mobster played by Danny Aiello, Leon cuts through his target's security like a knife through a warm baguette.

For all their similarities, Leon is still a few notches below Victor on the ruthlessness scale; he won't do contracts on women or kids and while the opportunity doesn't present itself in the film, I don't imagine Leon would dissolve people with acid while they're still alive. On his off days, he watches Gene Kelly musicals with childlike glee and consumes more milk than any character since Alex in A Clockwork Orange (is that supposed to be tie-in advertising from the dairy council?) His only friend is a houseplant he sprays with water constantly. He sleeps in a chair with his eyes open and a loaded pistol on the stand next to him.

Leon makes acquaintance with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the 12 year-old girl who lives in the apartment down the hall with her sleazy, abusive father and step mom. Her parents have been cutting dope they've supposed to be holding for a group of corrupt DEA agents, led by the psychotic Stansfield. Played by Gary Oldman at his scene chewing finest (this is probably the best villain role he's ever had...I still occasionally fight the urge to yell "EVERYOOOONE!" when the mood strikes me) Stansfield is an amyl nitrate popping nut job who (also like Alex in A Clockwork Orange) listens to Beethoven to get hyped up before murdering Mathilda's parents and siblings.

Leon, who has been watching massacre from the spy hole on his door, rescues Mathilda from the DEA agents by letting her into his apartment. After learning what he does as his profession, Mathilda convinces the reluctant Leon to teach her how to "clean" so she can take revenge on the people that killed her little brother.

From this point on, you can tell roughly how the movie is going to play out: Mathilda's childlike innocence will humanize Leon and he will eventually take revenge on Gary Oldman. Where Leon steps away from this conventional set-up is in how overtly sexual the character of Mathilda is. God knows what would have happened to this girl if she had grown up in the age of chatrooms and Myspace predators. Mathilda quickly falls in love with her mentor and is anything but shy about expressing it. This is difficult for Leon, who views their relationship as a strictly father-daughter type thing. He always does the right thing and keeps their relationship strictly platonic. The struggle he feels around Mathilda is more of a "how do I let this person I care about down easy?" awkwardness than whether he should hit it or not.

The highly sexualized portrayal of young girls makes most people uneasy, myself included. While one cannot talk about the film without bringing up the issue, Besson does not treat it in an exploitative manner. Indeed, Natalie Portman (in her debut performance) imbues Mathilda with a dignity that keeps her character from being a cheap joke. Where Leon is something of a child in a man's body--mature yet awkward with adult emotions--Mathilda is wise beyond her years but not quite a grown up. Her love of Leon feels sweet and innocent, a little girl's crush heightened by the desperation of their circumstances.

Despite it's emphasis on characterizations, Leon: The Professional is first and foremost an action movie. Luc Besson is no slacker when it comes to gunplay. The action scenes are more polished and exciting than the ones in La Femme Nikita, which was far from skimpy in its pyrotechnics. It deserves a place with any of the classic "hitman" movies, if that's even a genre.

When the movie was first released, many critics and test audiences savaged it as being virtually child pornography. In response 24 minutes were cut from the US theatrical release are primarily scenes between Mathilda and Leon, most notoriously one where she explicitly asks to lose her virginity to him. That would have been too much for a general American public, though it probably could have had an audience on the art house circuit. While the US theatrical version (which came out as simply The Professional) was lean and got the point across, I do prefer the "international version" with the 24 minutes restored. There are too many great character moments where Leon teaches Mathilda how to "clean" to leave on the cutting room floor.

Leon: The Professional is an odd fusion of the European and the American. The bittersweet conflict between its misfit characters played against a backdrop of blood and cordite elevates the film from being either just a dumb action movie or a dull French drama. Just remember, even twelve years after it's been released, it is still wrong to fap to Natalie Portman in this picture. If that's what you're all about, then go rent Closer....sicko.


Blogger Jack said...

Great review of a spectacular film by one of the great directors of our time.

Leon regards Mathilda as a daughter-like figure, he rescues her at the beginning and cares for her in the way he has his plant (would risk his life for her), and I wasn't offended by the film. She had a 'crush' on her hero and he made it obvious it would not go any further.

I think that conservative America is too harsh on films with sexual connotations. While violent films which most other countries would stamp as adults only, often get lenient ratings in the US.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Kent said...

Leon is a great movie. I'm a fan of Jean Reno (after seeing this flick years ago). I have to ask, if you are reviewing all the DVDs in your collection - how many do you have?

8:51 AM  
Blogger DK said...

Honestly, I've never counted. If I did, I'd probably be horrified at how much I've spent on them.

Anyways, at the rate I pump these things out, I've probably got years worth of material just on my shelf. And I also do some stuff that isn't there in the meantime.

1:18 AM  

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