The Professional (aka Lèon)
January 3rd, 2023
Director: Luc Besson
Release Date: November 18th, 1994
Format/Platform: Amazon Prime
Few films match the gravitas and humanity of The Professional, interspersed with exciting action scenes and an operatic villain. It is a real shame that more people know and enjoy Besson’s The Fifth Element rather than The Professional- it is the far superior film, and greatly benefits from its smaller scope and budget. According to rumor, Luc Besson’s magnum opus was to be The Fifth Element but he had not quite cut his teeth yet, so he drafted The Professional to make enough money and show off his talent. Some think it is a loose remake or even a sequel to his earlier film La Femme Nikita, but this is denied repeatedly by Besson himself. Ironically, the hastily made “money maker” film was a box office success and put Besson’s name on the map in the United States. The more ambitious “love project” would flop, though it became a cult favorite over the years. While The Professional is highly praised, I feel it gets overshadowed by The Fifth Element and isn’t discussed much anymore.
The Professional begins with a thrilling action sequence- introducing Leon, a “cleaner” for an Italian crime syndicate. He is firm about not killing women or children, but doesn’t blink an eye at murdering dozens of henchmen. His only contact in New York is Tony, a Mafia boss based out of a Little Italy restaurant that assigns him work- typically via photographs in a manila envelope showing who the “marks” are. Leon speaks little throughout the film, preferring to keep to himself and only leaving his apartment to watch old movies, buy milk from the corner bodega and go to work. He lives down the hall from a dysfunctional family, headed by a loathsome father that stashes drugs for a wildly corrupt DEA agent named Norman Stansfield. Mathilda is the lonely, abused youngest daughter of the family that prefers to hang out in the hallway and smoke cigarettes to avoid her family’s constant drama. One day while shopping for groceries, her entire family is murdered by Stansfield and his goons when the father cuts a supply of cocaine in order to resell a portion for himself. She goes to Leon’s door begging him to let her in, and he reluctantly invites her in- saving her life.
Initially he treats her as a burden and contemplates killing her while she is asleep, but changes his mind shortly after putting a suppressed handgun to her head. He tries convincing her to leave and go elsewhere but she has nowhere to go. She catches onto what he does for a living and wants to learn how to “clean,” at first to Leon’s chagrin but eventually he breaks down and starts training her. We learn that Leon is illiterate and moved to the United States under duress, leaving behind his old life in Italy to become a hitman for the Mafia. In exchange for teaching her how to “clean,” she teaches him how to read and write- but also how to regain his humanity and forgive himself for his prior mistakes. The film brings up awkward subjects; the relationship between Mathilda and Leon is close even though there is a large age gap. Leon keeps his distance from Mathilda for obvious reasons, even when she proclaims her love for him romantically. He becomes a father-like figure to her, since her own father was neglectful and abusive. She becomes a daughter-like figure to him; he never married nor had children due to a traumatic event in his old country, and they fill a role in each other’s lives. Luckily the relationship does not move beyond this, though it can certainly be unnerving for some viewers.
The rest of the film focuses on Mathilda seeking revenge against Stansfield for killing her little brother (the only family member she cared about, since he was a defenseless little boy.) She gets caught when sneaking into his office to assassinate him- provoking Leon to rescue her but now having a huge mark on his head. Stansfield finds Leon’s address by beating Tony, and utilizes his authority to send dozens of SWAT and police officers to wipe out both Leon and Mathilda. The last action scene is gratuitous but exciting- Mathilda escapes through a chute down to the basement, while Leon takes the uniform of a SWAT member and escapes the building. His escape is short lived however, but he is able to take out Stansfield and end his reign of corruption and terror. The film ends as Mathilda talks to Tony and receives Leon’s earnings, doled out in small increments to ensure she’s not spending it all at one place or gets it stolen. She decides to take the straight and narrow way by going back to school as Leon suggested, eschewing the violent and unpredictable life that he led.
What I appreciate most about The Professional is that its tone remains consistent- somber at moments, and peppered with high excitement. We contrast the cool, calculating and methodical Leon to the cruel, gratuitous and sloppy Stansfield- two killers with radically different ideologies and tactics. There are a couple of humorous moments, but it feels natural and doesn’t attempt to detract from the overall serious tone of the film. Not much is explored about Leon’s background besides some minor exposition, which leaves the audience curious about his life prior to becoming a hitman. Was he a soldier in the old country? How is he so good with guns but can’t read or write? The film leaves a lot of questions unanswered but still has a satisfying conclusion, with an ending that ends on a high note. It is a raw look at life without being nihilistic- where it’s still possible to escape from violence and abuse to start a new life. Even though Leon’s life ends, his sacrifice ensures that Mathilda will continue on with life and have a chance at a happy life.
The cinematography is excellent, with detailed closeup shots along with expansive views of New York City during the 1990’s. Tight quarters make the action scenes more dire and stressful, as escape is nearly impossible in an apartment building. Casting includes several notable actors such as Jean Reno, Natalie Portman (in a very early role,) Danny Aiello and Gary Oldman. Oldman’s performance in particular is quite grand; showing a range of emotions from elation, anger, annoyance and pleasure. He pops several unknown pills, possibly to treat a mental illness, but we’re unsure of what condition he even has (or if the pills are an illicit substance.) All we know is that he derives great pleasure from murdering, abusing his position and causing general chaos. Even his henchmen are deathly afraid of him, as he is unhinged and unpredictable- creating tension and uncertainty. Out of his extensive acting portfolio, this is my favorite role of Gary Oldman and one of the creepiest (saying a lot for a guy that portrayed Count Dracula.)
The Professional is a must-watch film for any cinema buff. There aren't many cinematic classics of the 1990's, but this is the diamond in the rough of that decade. It is not a light film to watch due to its content, but is an experience you will not regret. Just for Gary Oldman’s performance alone it is worth the price of admission, but along the way you will get a heartwarming and exciting film. I highly recommend it, and it can be rented/purchased on Amazon Prime.