Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Professional

Say what you will about corrupt executives who lie and steal, but those are crimes that allow a person to live a luxurious, comfortable lifestyle and support family and friends, insulated from the consequences of his or her actions against the people they harm.

But take Leon, (Jean Reno) the eponymous hit man, or cleaner, of Luc Besson's The Professional (1994). He lives alone in a sparse, otherwise empty apartment. He kills (or as the opening action scene demonstrates, threatens to kill) people for living, not caring who or why; when his boss Tony (Danny Aiello) tells him to, he kills. He has no family, no friends, and no connections outside of his work. He doesn't even really enjoy the financial benefits, since Tony holds on to the money for him. At night, Leon sits in a dark corner with sunglasses on instead of sleeping in a bed. The only thing he cares for is a plant.

His life is one of routine job after another until Mathilda (Natalie Portman) enters it. Mathilda is a 12-year-old girl who lives in the same apartment complex as Leon. One day, her family is murdered by a group of corrupt DEA agents led by the nasty, classical music-loving Stansfield (Gary Oldman playing another one of his great psychotic villains). Mathilda is away from home when the violence occurs, and when she gets back, she turns to Leon as her protector, who reluctantly takes her in. Thirsty for revenge, she demands Leon trains her to be a "cleaner," and it isn't long before this orphan changes this contract killer's heart.

That is The Professional in a nutshell. It is a stylish, action-packed thriller with some show-stopping sequences, particularly Leon's first job and later his last stand against Stansfield and his men.  Leon's practically a superhero with guns in terms of his abilities. However, the relationship between Leon and Mathilda is the heart of the movie, and Besson builds it on a peculiar irony: Leon, a hired killer, is more child-like, naive, and uneducated than Mathilda, who in some ways is wise beyond her years. "I'm finished growing up, Leon. I just get older," she tells him. "For me it's the opposite," he replies. "I'm old enough. I need time to grow up."

Leon murders people for the Mafia, but his preferred drink is milk, he asks Tony for money the way a child asks a parent for an allowance, and he can't read or write. Mathilda, on the other hand, is someone who had to grow up very quickly: her father hits her, she's the one who goes grocery shopping for her family and later Leon, she smokes, and she's blunt about revenge, not caring that her parents and older sister were gunned because of the abuse they heaped on her. Nope, she wants revenge for her little brother because he didn't do anything to deserve what happened to him. "I wanna kill those sons of bitches and blow their fucking heads off," are the words she uses.

As the film progresses, so to does their relationship. He discusses the life of the cleaner, taking her on the rooftop for a little target practice with a sniper rifle, and she teaches him how to read. He originally intends to send her packing after initially securing her safety, but by the end, he's her committed guardian, willing to do anything to protect her. The cold, lonely assassin discovers happiness and family.

The film is strongly acted by Reno and Portman (in her debut), but there are times when Mathilda acts too old for her age, and those scenes made me uncomfortable. At one point, Mathilda flat out states she's fallen in love with Leon and even tells a hotel clerk he's her lover. Before that the two play a guessing game in which Mathilda dresses up as Marilyn Monroe and Madonna and sings "Happy Birthday" and "Like a Virgin" rather suggestively. I suppose it's understandable for a girl that age to develop a crush on an older man who protects and cares for her, and to be fair, Leon never demonstrates any amorous intention towards her, but a little goes along way. Maybe it supports the notion that Mathilda is the adult and Leon the child, but it feels icky.

From a filmmaking standpoint, The Professional is exceptionally well made. Besson brings a lot of style and energy, especially in the action choreography and editing. These guys don't just stand around and shoot; it's practically a ballet of bullets that's simply breathtaking. There's even some humor, and it doesn't feel forced in. For example, Leon cheers Mathilda up with a potholder that looks like a pig, and Oldman is such a wonderfully, sleazy bastard, it's impossible to not enjoy him as you root for his demise.

The Professional is not a gritty, plausible movie. It could have been, but Besson chose not to make the movie ugly and intense (like say Taxi Driver). Instead, he elected to make it eye-popping and stunning. It's pure film fantasy, but it is exhilarating.

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