A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 209 – Leon: The Professional

Leon: The Professional – September 25th, 2010

I know I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve seen every bit of it. But not all at once. It’s an odd movie that I’ve seen in pieces here and there, flipping past it on television or catching a few minutes when friends were watching it in the dorm in college. Things like that. But sitting down and watching it beginning to end was a new thing. I tend to do this with movies sometimes and then when asked I say I’ve seen them and only when I really think about it do I realize I’ve seen it in a patchwork sort of way. Making myself realize this and sit down and watch it as it’s meant to be watched is yet one more benefit of this little project.

I do love this movie. It has so many excellent parts. So it makes me sad that the full version has so many uncomfortable moments. The two protagonists are Leon, a hit man in his 30s at least and Mathilda, a girl who’s probably around 11 or 12 at most. And the full version has Mathilda developing a romantically-inclined fixation on Leon, to the point of asking him to be her first sexual partner. That was cut out of the original American release precisely because it made test audiences feel really uncomfortable, thereby ruining the mood of the movie. I won’t say it’s ruined for me, but it’s definitely not a part of the movie I enjoy. I think the relationship between the two characters is fascinating enough without it. I am glad to have read that Jean Reno has said that he intentionally portrayed Leon in such a way as to lead the viewer to believe that he would never take advantage of Mathilda or her fixation on him. It helps a great deal to know that at least one adult in the making of the film was concerned with the dynamic and wanted to make sure it played more as a fixation and not as an actual romantic relationship.

Now, a girl entering puberty, whose family have all been killed (and brutally so), who’s got one single person who can protect her and teach her how to be an adult? That’s not set up to produce a character whose emotional maturity is at all typical. Crushes on inappropriate people happen. So I do appreciate when Leon hears what Mathilda is saying and has to deal with it. Has to tell her no without alienating her because she is alone and has a habit of going off and doing foolish things when she feels alienated. One gets the impression that Mathilda has been largely on her own for a long time. Being able to count on anyone is new to her, and it comes in the wake of enormous tragedy. I just don’t like watching it all. Nothing ever happens, but it’s unsettling all the same. And that’s a real shame, because without it, the development of their life together is really something unique and interesting and altogether absorbing.

In the wake of the brutal murders of Mathilda’s entire family, Leon takes her in. This is a fateful moment and played brilliantly by both Reno as Leon and Natalie Portman as Mathilda. On opposite sides of the door, not speaking to each other directly, they go from being utterly disconnected to inextricably linked in a matter of a few tense seconds. In many other filmmakers’ hands, this would be the start of an emotional drama. But Luc Besson has made Leon a hired killer who works for an Italian crime boss. And Mathilda becomes his protege, determined to get revenge on the men who killed her family. What follows is not so much an action movie. Yes, there is action, but it’s more about Mathilda and Leon and what happens when two such lonely and different people end up sharing a life.

Leon is very much alone when the movie begins. He is good at what he does. The best. He is a professional. He goes home after a day of killing and he waters his plant and has a glass of milk and sleeps in his chair. It is routine. Mathilda lives with her father, step-mother, half sister and half brother. The first three she can’t stand, but she loves her brother. He’s the only one she cares about. He’s the one she ends up wanting revenge for. It’s implied that Mathilda’s had problems – or her father had problems with her – before the movie began. She was enrolled at a school for troubled girls and seems to have run away. They’re not the same character by any means, but they end up filling holes in each others’ lives. Mathilda gives Leon a purpose and passion again. He wants to protect her and provide for her. Leon gives Mathilda security like she’s never known. He’s gruff with her, and strict, but not abusive and by the end he’s genuinely invested in her, which her family never was. It’s not quite a parent and child relationship, but it’s also not a partnership of equals. It is its own thing. Unique. And one wonderful thing that Leon gives Mathilda by the end is the ability to look for people who can help her and accept their help. I love that.

But it’s not all domestic bliss with Mathilda and Leon having reading lessons and milk and cookies and polishing their guns together. No. Because we need a villain. And who is our villain? Why, it’s Gary Oldman! Of course it’s Gary Oldman! He’s a sociopath who happens to have a high placed job that lets him cover up his sociopathic killing sprees under the guise of legal work! Brilliant! He’s also often on some sort of chemical high and has a thing for Beethoven, reminding me a little of Dominique Pinion’s character in Diva, with his headphones on when we meet him. Oldman gets some fantastic moments in the movie. Some real scenery chewing bad guy stuff, where he gets to shoot lots of people and prattle on about how Mozart is too light for killing to and then he’s screaming for backup and when he wants backup he wants everyone. With Leon’s steadfast calm and Mathilda’s steely resolve (and quiet tears in places), Oldman as Stansfield is wild and unpredictable. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition and works brilliantly for the movie.

In many ways this is a character study masquerading as an action movie. It serves up shooting and explosions a-plenty, but more than that it serves up a look into two unexpected lives converging. My issues with the full version aside, I think it’s a wonderfully written, plotted and performed movie. And really, Mathilda’s so going to kick more ass when she grows up.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Leon – The Professional

September 25, 2010

Leon: The Professional

Ahh the joys of Luc Besson. He’s got such a simple vision. His movies are full of conflicted criminals and over the top violence. They have silent lonely men who discover something about their humanity over the course of the movie. And waifish kickass girls. You’ll recall that when I was reviewing Unleashed I was puzzled by the strange morality and the almost surreal world it takes place in, but that as soon as I realized that it was written by Luc Besson it suddenly made everything clear. You can see hints of La Femme Nikita in The Fifth Element. So take all those tropes, those repeated themes in his work and boil them down to their most basic essence and you get this movie. It has the most moral and conflicted of criminals. It has the most waifish waif. It has the most ridiculous against-all-odds climactic battle. In short – this is the most essentially Luc Besson of all Luc Besson movies.

I’ve heard that this is a spiritual successor to La Femme Nikita and that the character of Leon that Jean Reno plays here is the same silent cleaner he plays at the end of Nikita. (This seems unlikely, since people refer to him as an Italian hit-man and he speaks Italian at times – in spite of having a heavy French accent.) It’s established right at the beginning that he is a badass killing machine. But of course he’s a lonely man with no real life. He kills people for a living, and he’s extremely good at it, but then he goes home alone to his empty apartment and his houseplant and drinks his milk. He sleeps sitting in a chair in the corner and uses his bed only to do sit-ups. His neighbour is a twelve year old girl with an attitude whose father is a dope mule for a group of low-life drug dealing scum. When Mathilda’s father tries to rip off his bosses they come down hard on him. They kill him and all the rest of his family too, but they miss Mathilda, and she ends up with Leon.

Leon knows from the start that she’s going to ruin his life, but he doesn’t have the heart to kick her out onto the street. Mathilda soon finds out what Leon’s profession is and she becomes determined to have him teach her how to become a hit-man so that she can kill the men who killed her little brother (and the rest of her family too.) If you don’t know exactly where this is headed then you haven’t watched enough action movies. There are not twists or turns in this plot – it moves forward with the momentum of a freight train towards its inevitable conclusion.

What makes the movie great is a combination of the fantastic action (a couple bits of which were directly cribbed by the Wachowski Brothers when they made the first Matrix movie) an the strong performances. Jean Reno is the perfect strong silent type. He plays Leon with a kind of vulnerability. Like Danny in Unleashed hes just a guy who is exceptionally good at killing, but he’s got a child-like spirit. His only friend and mentor is Tony, played by Danny Aiello. Danny takes a role that’s pretty much just a warmed over Godfather but with fewer lines and manages to give him a heart. It’s mostly just in glances and movements because he has so little to work with, but you really do kind of care for this fatherly mob boss by the end of the movie.

Natalie Portman is the driving force throughout most of the movie. It’s an unforgiving role. As with Jennifer Connelly in yesterday’s movie she is often petulant, and sometimes annoying. I suppose she plays such a convincing awkward teenager because she really was so young at the time. A large portion of the movie is given over to the relationship between Mathilda and Leon, and it’s actually a pretty complex relationship to capture. Mathilda sees herself as more adult than she is, what with her smoking and her swearing, and she has a very strong will. Much of the plot of the movie comes from her refusal to listen to anybody else and her determination to exact revenge. She develops a schoolgirl crush on Leon which makes for some of the most awkward parts of the film. In most things Leon wants only to protect her, which means that he wants to protect her from his world as well, but still he has trouble refusing her when she demands that he teach her the ways of a cold hearted killer. It’s an interesting dynamic with some truly awkward moments and also some very tender ones.

Rounding out the cast is by far my favorite part of the movie: Gary Oldman. Crazy motherf*cking Gary Oldman. He’s done a whole lot of memorable roles, and he always seems able to create whole new characters for himself, but this is one of the best. He plays Stansfield, the dirty DEA detective who heads the gang that kills Mathilda’s family. The character as written is just an egomaniacle crazy killer, but Oldman brings such verve, such abandon and such power to the role that he livens up the entire movie. You really need to believe that this is a character capable of killing a twelve year old girl, capable of enjoying it even, and on this Gary Oldman delivers. In spades. I want to go back and watch his scenes again right now just for the grin that he brings to my face.

This movie is so much fun. The whole Luc Besson thing with the reluctant criminal with a heart learning how to be human never gets old to me, and this is by far my favorite. It makes me really look forward to watching Taken later in the project, and I’m even tempted to buy The Transporter, of which I’ve only seen parts when I played it in the store one day. Fun, rediculous, over-the-top stories. Sure, Besson only really makes one movie over and over again, but it’s such a great movie that I can easily forgive him for it and look forward to seeing it again.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment