If you haven't seen Leon, I envy you. Seeing a movie of this caliber is a real treat, and once you've seen it, your only regret is that you'll never again be able to experience the kind of awe that only a first-time viewing can bring. As Dale once put it, "They don't get much better than this."
Léon, played by Jean Reno, is an experienced and extremely competent hit-man by trade – a job which he euphemistically refers to as "cleaner." Mathilda, played by the young and ever-beautiful Natalie Portman, is a troubled girl in an abusive family whose only joy in life is her relationship with her little brother. The worlds of these two contrasting characters intersect only inasmuch as they live on the same floor of their slummish apartment building. The two often exchange small talk as Léon passes Mathilda on his way to and from his apartment, and while it's quite apparent to him that Mathilda is the subject of much physical abuse, Léon would not dream of becoming involved in that. He is a loner. And a professional. And he drinks milk. Lots and lots of milk.
We soon meet Stansfield (Gary Oldman), a neurotic and corrupt police detective, who gives Mathilda's father 24 hours to come up with some missing cocaine. When he fails to produce, Stansfield and his cronies ruthlessly gun down Mathilda's entire family, including her little brother. Mathilda herself is saved by chance, as she had thoughtfully gone to the store to buy Léon some milk. On her way back, Mathilda sees Stansfield and his men and his guns and all the blood. Smartly, without so much as a sideways glance, she heads directly to Léon's door with grocery bag in hand and rings the buzzer.
Léon stands behind the door listening to Mathilda tearfully plead for him to let her in. Léon is torn. His instincts as a professional tell him to ignore her. But he knows that would be tantamount to a death sentence. This scene is intense. It is wonderfully acted, has beautiful cinematography, and has a powerful soundtrack to build and sustain the tension. I become tearful every time I watch it.
And so the story of Léon and Mathilda begins. Mathilda asks Léon to teach her how to be a cleaner so she can exact her revenge for the murder of her little brother. Of course Léon says no, and in fact tells Mathilda that she has to leave in the morning. When she tells him she has no place to go, he replies, "Not my problem." But Mathilda can be very convincing. Eventually she has her way, and she and Léon leave to find a new place, and her training begins.
If you want a movie with great visuals, excellent bloody action, or awesome sound, Léon delivers in spades. But the most interesting aspect of this film is the relationship that develops between Léon and Mathilda. Mathilda regularly professes her love for Léon – not a daughterly love, but a romantic one. We see Mathilda's crush almost immediately when Léon tells her his name and she replies all starry-eyed, "Cute name." But Léon, having been a loner since he was 19, is himself confused by his own feelings toward Mathilda. We are left with a sense of ambiguity as to the nature of his feelings. When Mathilda gently propositions him, Léon explains about a difficult relationship from his past. Rather than espouse any moral concerns with his being intimate with Mathilda, he tells her tenderly, "You see Mathilda, I won't be a good lover."
Whatever the true nature of their feelings for each other, no lines are crossed during this film. And we see toward the end that their love for each other is both genuine and very powerful.
There are moments in Léon where there is a strong sensuality surrounding Mathilda which, at times, quickly approaches the border of eroticism. In one scene, Mathilda lies on a bed, arms out-stretched, and tells Léon that she is falling in love with him. "I feel it in my stomach," she explains, and gently touches her bare midriff. In another scene, when Mathilda confronts Stansfield, he caresses Mathilda's face and lips as he threatens her, generating an image that is both disturbing and lightly suggestive in its sensuality. Both of these scenes are brilliantly filmed and capture very specific moods – particularly the latter scene, which produces an extremely tense and uncomfortable atmosphere.
Although there is an overall tension and dark theme to Léon, there are many lighthearted and amusing scenes to serve as contrast. In one, Mathilda and Léon play a game where each dresses up and acts as a certain person while the other attempts to guess who it is. Natalie's rendition of Charlie Chaplain makes me smile every time. In another, Mathilda has a little too much champagne, and she becomes a very drunk and giggly little girl.
The ending of Léon is everything it should be, and one certainly befitting an independent film of European lineage. Léon made me an instant fan of Natalie Portman, Jean Reno, and Gary Oldman, and also of Luc Besson, the director and writer of Léon. It is beautifully filmed, and the soundtrack is enjoyable. For those of you with decent home theater systems, the acoustic ambience of Léon will give your subwoofer a good workout. You should also be aware that there are several cuts of this movie available. Make sure you see the uncut, International version or else you will be doing yourself a disservice. If you're watching a movie titled "The Professional," you've got the wrong one.
Natalie is both talented and very beautiful in this movie, and to this day Léon remains her best work. Léon, and Natalie's performance in it, earns one of our highest scores. Go watch this movie now.