THE PROFESSIONAL (1994) (LEON in France) ** 3/4.
At age 23, Parisian film junkie Luc Besson made a promising feature debut with a low-budget, dialogue-less sci-fi thriller "The Last Combat." Next was the thriller "Subway," set in the Paris metro--a trendy, stylish exercise full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. In "The Big Blue," about two champion free divers, the cameras reached extraordinary levels under water but that was the only depth this vague movie reached. "La Femme Nikita"(remade in America as "Point of No Return") was an OK, intriguing, modish combination of character study and action thriller tinged by science-fiction elements.
Besson's head is more than ever full of American movie images, including music videos (he's made some). And like many of his compatriots he likes to film "a l'americaine." In ³The Professional² he practices this with a vengeance, and Gallic notions of the tough American underworld. His set pieces and characterizations are cliches, but let's admit it: they are effective.
More French that imitation-American are his "homages"--mostly jocular--to U.S. films, from Gene Kelly to Hitchcockıs McGuffin. Included are Gary Oldmanıs references to Beethoven which have the odor of product placement. These are less nods to the eponymous "Beethoven" movies than to Oldmanıs role as the composer in the forthcoming movie, "Immortal Beloved."
Leon (Jean Reno) is a master-killer for hire, a terminator, a "cleaner"which term I first heard in "La Femme Nikita." Leonıs main and seemingly only employer, "banker" and--in the filmıs only subtlety--suspiciously devoted friend, is New York master mobster Danny Aiello, who owns a spaghetteria as a front.
The overture is a montage of closeups, perhaps influenced by Costa-Gavras' "Z," in which Leon gets assigned the annihilation of competing drug dealers. He carries this out with extraordinary efficiency, in impressively staged and shot sequences. "The Professional" is nothing if not technically superior.
By an rather forced coincidence, Leon's apartment is across that of double-dealing dealer of drugs. The merchant is brutally dispatched, along with his family, by a bunch of thugs. Or so you think until they turn out to be tainted-beyond-corruption DEA agents led by terminally weird, unbalanced, cruel, vicious (as in "Sid and Nancy") and pill-popping Gary (Gary Oldman).
12-year-old Matilda (Natalie Portman) is the unhappy, mistreated daughter and step-daughter of the defunct family. By another fabrication she is the massacreıs sole survivor. She wants revenge--not for her whole family but for her natural kid brother.
She tells Leon that she wants to become a cleaner too. He obliges and trains her. She finds a stash of money and "hires" the professional terminator. She also brings some sunshine into his life before they confront Oldman and Co.
The bonding of a young girl and an older man, often criminal and/or deranged, is a sub-category in movies, as in "Tiger Bay," "Whistle Down the Wind," the French "Sundays and Cybele" and "Diva," among others.
Newcomer Natalie Portman was found in a big casting search, but the filmıs information about her is otherwise zero. While Besson leans fairly heavily on glimpses of child sexuality, he does skirt blatancy. Matilda is beautiful, appealing and well played, but like almost everyone else in this film, she speaks lines, not real-life sentences.
She also supplies touches of non-black humor, as in her "guess who I am" game with Leon who doesnıt get her impersonations: Madonna "Like a Virgin", Marilyn Monroe singing her throaty "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," Charlie Chaplin. Funny stuff, though it is rather unlikely that Matilda knows so much at her age.
But then everything else in the movie is unlikely. Leon, a man of few words, is a dour loner in the soulful, existential Gallic manner; a mystery man, childish in many ways, inarticulate, surrealistically attached (pre-Matilda) only to his house plant, his sole possession besides his arsenal. He always wears dark glasses, even in dark rooms--but then the sensitivity of French eyes as well as souls is well known.
The list of plot-holes, improbabilities and impossibilities is enormous. Up to a point, it is camouflaged by excellent visuals and high-budget pyrotechnics. Still, nothing really makes sense. Can you accept that fine-tuned killing-machine Leon can perform so well even though he cannot read? What about his combat skills that put Zorro to shame? Or Gary Oldmanıs living caricature? Or his Ninja-like SWAT team?
"The Professional" is skillful, even brilliant, silly, totally artificial construct. Young audiences loved it, most older critics dismissed it. As realism, sociology or psychology it is nothing. But if you watch it as fantasy, it works quite well.