Sometimes mislabeled as simply The Professional, Léon: The Professional (1994) is the film that launched Natalie Portman’s career. Her Mathilda, though, is not the star. That would be the title character, played by Jean Reno. In a recent episode of the podcast I do with a buddy of mine called Down and Out Reviews, we speculated as to why there has not been a sequel focusing on the hitman’s erstwhile protégé, Mathilda. It is a project we would like to see green lit. At the same time, if you watch the movie as I did recently, you might understand why this has yet to happen. A cursory amount internet sleuthing will show you that Portman’s experience with the movie is a bitter one. The regular version of the film will tell you all you need to know. The extended cut, which I viewed, shows some of the even more awkward interactions between the main characters that were cut from the theatrical version.
A big time (in every sense of the word) gangster (Frank Senger) arrives at a hotel in New York as Léon: The Professional opens. There is an escort girl waiting for him in his room. Before he can get settled, a series of disturbances are being caused by the title character. One-by-one, in methodical and quick succession, Leon eliminates all the bodyguards. He then emerges from the shadows behind the terrified gangster, who is sweating and clutching an uzi, and puts a knife to his throat. Leon then hands over a phone with a number to dial. The voice on the other end is Leon’s employer, Tony (Danny Aiello), who instructs his potential rival to clear out of town. Message delivered, Leon retreats into the shadows and is gone. Now it is time to return to his day-to-day routine, buying some milk along the way. When he gets to his humble apartment, he finds the twelve-year-old girl Mathilda smoking a cigarette. Her family lives in the apartment next to his, and they are not exactly the Brady Bunch. Her dad (Michael Badalucco) is involved with drugs, and is abusive. The abusiveness is noticed by Leon during his brief conversation with Mathilda before retreating into his lodgings. The drugs we discover when shortly thereafter her dad enters their hallway, along with Agent Malky (Peter Appel) and his boss Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Mathilda’s dad had been given drugs by the mentally unstable Stansfield, but when they came to check on the illicit material, they found that part of it had been tainted. They then give Mathilda’s dad until noon the next day to make up the difference. When the appointed time comes without anything being done, Stansfield comes back with even more men and abruptly murders everyone inside. Luckily for Mathilda, she had been out shopping. When she gets back, she walks past her own place and desperately asks Leon to let her into his apartment. Reluctantly, he does so, having watched what he could of the violence unfold through his peephole. Once Stansfield and his men are gone, Leon sits down with her and tries to cheer her up with a pig-shaped pot holder. For the most part, she is not sorry about the loss of her family, except for her four-year-old brother who is tragically gunned down. She also quickly discovers that Leon is an assassin after inadvertently opening a suitcase and finding it full of guns. He refers to himself euphemistically as a “cleaner.” Seeing this gives her the initial idea of hiring him to avenge her brother. When he refuses, she begs him to let her stay, saying that she will tidy up and do all the shopping. After some hesitation, he agrees. However, her next request is to learn how to become a “cleaner.” When he challenges her as to whether or not she has the stomach for that kind of work, she calmly picks up a revolver and fires off a number of shots randomly into the street below. They hurriedly move before the police come. And thus begins Methilda’s tutelage as an assassin. While this goes on, one day she confesses that she is beginning to fall in love with the much older man. Understandably, Leon is uncomfortable with this confession. Yet, he cannot deny that he cares for Mathilda. She also has not given up on tracking down Stansfield. One day, while snooping around her old apartment for money she knew was stashed there, she overhears the hateful DEA agent arguing with other officers. During the exchange, she learns the location of Stansfield’s office. Leaving the money with a note for Leon about the other people responsible for the death of her brother, she then takes a number of weapons herself and heads to Stansfield’s location. Stansfield corners her in a bathroom before she is able to have her vengeance. At the same time, Leon is told that Malky had been killed by Leon. Not long after, Leon comes to Mathilda’s rescue, dispatching more of Stansfield’s men. In anger, Stansfield turns to Tony, who is forced to give up Leon’s location. Stansfield then orders seemingly every cop in New York City to Leon’s location, and a shootout occurs. In the process, Leon is able to get Mathilda safely away. He almost survives, too, dressing as one of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team members as the dust settled from all the bullets and explosions. Stansfield recognizes him before Leon can affect his escape and shoots the hitman in the back of the head, but not before Leon blows them up with a clutch of grenades. Mathilda then walks to the reform school where she was supposed to be enrolled, and unfolds the tale of the previous few weeks. This is where the movie ends.
As I alluded to in the introduction, the relationship between Leon and Mathilda in Léon: The Professional is borderline inappropriate. The plot synopsis I gave you is basically the theatrical version of the film. I am familiar enough with that one that when I watch the extended cut, I am able to recognize the parts that the director, Luc Besson, included in this other version. Whatever you want to call it, it explores more the relationship between Leon and Mathilda. In the original, her training involves shooting a paintball round from a rifle at a long distance, as well as a lot of exercise and learning the proper way to handle and maintain a gun. In the other, she goes on a series of hits with him. After she is allowed to practice her craft with a few more paint rounds, he always comes along and finishes the job. Great father figure, right? Leon probably wishes that is all she wants from him. Natalie Portman is on record as speaking out against the sexualization she experienced from making the film. In the original, this is limited to her dressing up as Madonna and performing “Like a Virgin” and as Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Both are bad enough. The other has her drinking champagne with Leon and attempting to kiss him, and later trying to get him to have sex with her. Thankfully, this last does not happen, but they do sleep in the same bed together. It is pretty cringey, and you have to wonder who in the heck ever thought this was a good idea.
If you can get past the uncomfortable material in Léon: The Professional, there are some valuable lessons that speak to Faith. There is even a little bit of Catholic ephemera, such as images of Jesus and Mary. Regrettably, the statue of Mary in Leon’s last apartment gets blown apart by gun fire. The best part is when Leon decides to take in Mathilda. Had she gone back to her own apartment, she probably would have been killed with the rest of her family. It is Leon’s compassion that saves her. It does not end with him opening his door. When he tries to tell her that she needs to leave, she appeals to his sense of duty. She makes a good point as well, saying that when you save a life you become responsible for it. This sentiment reminds me of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37. A Samaritan traveler finds a hurt individual on the road, who had been passed over by several others. Taking the injured person to a nearby inn, the Samaritan then leaves his charge with the innkeeper with money for care and instructions to bill him for whatever extra money was needed. Saving a life, from any perspective, is a great thing to do, and there are so many ways to accomplish it. It ties us together in the best of ways, assuming we respond in kind. Granted, the outcome of what Leon did for Mathilda might not have been the most usual (to say the least), but it was nonetheless compassionate. That is something God asks from all of us.
Léon: The Professional has a lot of material in it, as you have seen, that is not good for many people to see. Like so much of what Hollywood gives us, you have to sift through a lot of mud in order to find the gems contained therein. But they are there to be found. Clearly, I would not recommend this to a general audience. Yet, if you can get through the bad parts, it is a pretty solid film.