1994 was a major year for Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Angel-A). After several local successes he finally hit it big with his first English-language film. Together with partner in crime Jean Reno he traveled all the way to New York to direct one of the 90s biggest cinematic legacies, a film that would be royally quoted and referenced in the years to come. To this day, Léon (The Professional) remains one of the 90's landmark films and a lasting testament to Besson's directing talent.
Besson's breakthrough film is one of the few personal favorites from my pre-Tetsuo/Eraserhead era that managed to withstand the test of time. Together with Kokaku Kidotai, Braindead and Trainspotting it belongs to a select group of films that I still cherish as much as I used to. As I sat down to watch it again a feeling of slight dread came over me, but 15 minutes in I knew I had nothing to fear.
Léon is often advertised as an action film, but I believe that listing the film as a crime drama does it more justice. Especially if you decide to watch Besson's director's cut, which only further deludes the action to drama ratio. It's truly the best version to watch as the added scenes help to bridge the gaps in what is basically a rather implausible storyline. And since the director's cut is clocking in at just a little over two hours, it doesn't really overstay its welcome either.
The story follows Léon, a hitman working for the Italians in New York. When one day his drug-dealing neighbors are violently killed by some rampant cops, he shelters their 12-year old daughter (Mathilda) in order to save her from certain death. Mathilda has no place else to go and to make matters worse, she loves the idea of becoming a hitman herself. Even though this greatly upsets Léon's daily routines, he finds himself unable to break off the relationship with Mathilda.
Visually Léon is still a very solid experience. Some of the shots (Léon and Mathilda walking next to each other on the NY streets) became so iconic that they actually transcended the film, taking on a life of their own. The film as a whole is a looker though, benefitting from Besson's solid camera work and slightly sepia-tinted styling. The action scenes in particular are visual treats, showcasing Besson's knack for restrained but powerful and explosive action cinematography.
The soundtrack is a little less interesting, relying heavily on existing music (though props for picking a Björk song), fleshed out with somewhat forgettable film music. Not that it's a terribly bad soundtrack, but it hardly adds anything to the atmosphere and you'll be hard-pressed to remember much of it the day after. It's a typical weakness in Besson's films, still I would've wished the soundtrack was at least a bit more outspoken. Now it's only functional at best, which is a shame for a film this good.
The acting on the other hand is stellar. Jean Reno plays the part of his life, turning his rather basic character into an immensely loveable goofball. The matchup with Portman is nothing less than genius, both visually (the towering Reno and the petite Portman make quite the couple) as emotionally (the bashful serial killer pitted against the unrestrained kid). You would almost forget that Oldman is having the time of his life playing the psycho killer cop. Secondary roles are solid too, but they are completely eclipsed by the main trio.
The setup of Léon is simply wonderful. A somewhat simple-minded yet ultraprofessional hitman is coupled with a crazy kid forcing him to teach her the trade. It's a crazy premise but Besson makes it work. Ultimately though, it's the small details that truly seal the deal. The milk, the plant, the wardrobes of Léon and Mathilda, Oldman's crazy antics. All memorable elements that keep the film from becoming just another "good" '90s crime film and set it well apart from its peers.
The film has aged surprisingly well. The action scenes are still amazing, Reno and Portman continue to impress and there's an edgy playfulness that keeps the film from becoming overly serious. Make sure you watch the director's cut though, as it adds a couple of interesting scenes that help to strengthen the bond between the main characters. A must see for everyone who lived through the '90s and undoubtedly one of top films of its decennium.