Sunday, June 9, 2013

Léon: The Professional (1994)

Director: Luc Besson                                Writer: Luc Besson
Film Score: Eric Serra                              Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman and Danny Aiello

After a memorable cameo by Jean Reno in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, which in turn inspired a similar cameo by Harvey Keitel in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Besson decided to write an entire film for the great French actor. Besson’s métier is definitely the crime film. He has such a wit in his writing, especially in terms of the actions that his characters take and the way that he sets up his scenes. And yet they are incredibly satisfying films within the genre. Unlike The Fifth Element, in which his style really didn’t translate at all to science-fiction, Léon: The Professional is Besson at his best.

Reno plays a freelance cleaner, hitman, who otherwise lives an unassuming life in a run down New York apartment. Next door, however, is thirteen year old Natalie Portman, whose father is a drug dealer. When she is out buying groceries one day, her entire family is killed and Reno takes her in. Of course she wants to learn to be a cleaner herself so that she can seek revenge on the killer, Gary Oldman, and his thugs. Obviously Reno can’t have her staying with him, but of course he does. Though filmed in New York City, the film is completely French in its conception. Portman falls in love with Reno and he, in a decidedly fatherly way, falls in love with her as well.

Danny Aiello plays the mafia boss who hires Reno, but hasn’t seen his cleaner in a while because Reno agrees to teach Portman and he’s been taking time off to do that. She’s been warming to him and he has allowed himself to form a relationship with her. It’s a testament to Besson’s genius that he can walk the line between humor, extreme violence, and realistic human sentiment and make it work in a way that is artistically satisfying on every level. Jean Reno’s revival of the cleaner is wonderful. As an actor, he has the ability to go from something light and fun, like French Kiss, to dark and menacing, like The Da Vinci Code. I’m looking forward to checking out more of his French films.

But another real treat is Natalie Portman. In only her second film, she picks up where Jodi Foster left off and manages to be utterly convincing in the role of the abused teen. There are a couple of spots that might have benefited from an additional take, but overall her performance is impressive. Besson’s usual suspects are also onboard, Eric Serra doing the kind of timeless soundtrack that only Europeans seem able to master, weaving in pop music in a seamless way with his score. And Thierry Arbogast, as always, is behind the camera doing great setups and angles that are part of the Besson signature. Léon: The Professional is another in his small but important and powerful body of work as a director. Luc Besson is one of the best.

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