Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 23, No. 1, 2024
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Jason McDonald
  Contributing Editors
Louis René Beres
David Solway
Nick Catalano
Robert Lyon
Chris Barry
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editor
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
  Photographer Jerry Prindle
Chantal Levesque
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Charles Tayler
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Glenn Loury
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

film appreciation



Roger's reviews have appeared in McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, Spin Magazine, The World, Orlando Magazine Autoweek Magazine among others. He is the founder and editor of Movie Nation


There was never anything subtle about Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, titled Leon overseas but The Professional here, and retitled both as it arrived on video.

A minimalist thriller with maximalist pull, it’s an opera of violence with performances both understated and bombastic enough to blow the speakers out in the theater.

It’s the film that launched Besson in this hemisphere and set Jean Reno firmly on the path to action stardom. It was the screen debut of future Oscar winner Natalie Portman. And it was the last movie the great Gary Oldman made during his drug binge years, and it shows. He sobered-up from authentically ‘bleary’ and went on to win an Oscar himself.

“Death is . . . whimsical, today.”

But Oldman’s diva turn as a volcanic, classical music-loving addict, a murderously corrupt D.E.A. agent, isn’t the only thing about this Little Italy epic that’s out of control. This picture is bracing and moving, flippant and cutesy, even.

Oh, and unsettling to the point of disturbing, borderline repellent. That’s just what’s on the screen, not even taking into account the accusations that hit Besson when #MeToo crossed the Atlantic that seem to fold onto the pervy tightrope this picture walks.

The story is a Gloria variation about a child taken in after her family is slaughtered by gangster law enforcement agents. She is protected from the mortal threat that comes with being a witness to mass murder. Here, the protector is a ‘cleaner,’ a variation on a hitman character Reno played in La Femme Nikita.

Leon is simple, illiterate and all-business. But when the 12--year-old neighbour girl he’s noticed smoking, sporting a black eye and a foul mouth knocks on his door just after four men have just murdered her father, stepmother, half sister and younger half-brother, the always-relocating killer-for-hire lets her in.

It’s the relationship that adds an edge beyond edgy and gives Leon a heaping helping of cringe. Look at the way Besson has Mathilda dressed — short-shorts, leggings, midriff-baring tops. Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver comes to mind, sexualized costuming for a child obsessed with the Transformers cartoons.

With Leon being a tad simple, we’re allowed to ponder this connection, which isn’t quite fatherly and yet never crosses any finite line in a romantic regard. But damn, it comes close.

When Mathilda convinces her protector to play a dress-up game of “Who is she, now?” it’s damned creepy, but kind of apt that she trots out as Madonna in bra-baring “Material Girl” mode. But then, bizarrely, she is Seven Year Itch subway grate “Happy birthday, Mister President” Marilyn Monroe.

Every parent in the audience must have squirmed at that. Did Portman’s?

I went to New York in ’94 to review and interview the stars of this film and Atom Egoyan’s middle-aged men trooping to a slutty schoolgirl-uniformed exotic dance club — Exotica –which previewed the same weekend. Between barely-beyond-a-teen Portman and Exotica teen Mia Kirshner, one could get a seriously jaded take on stage parents, even though Portman’s escorted her to her interviews.

But the best argument against seeing this film through a narrow, creeper-behind-the-camera lens is the bravura movie-making that just bowls you over even as you fret about what lines Monsieur Luc might cross.

Heroes and villains are framed in tight, sweaty close-ups, action beats perfectly-assembled, characters built out of on-the-nose casting (Danny Aiello as Leon’s Italian restaurant “contractor” and banker) right down to Oldman. Who better to play an cultured, psychotic addict, someone whose every swallowed pill is an orgasmic experience.

Besson limits how much of the city we see, concentrating on the old, iron-railing’d New York flophouse, the worn-out apartment and Leon’s spartan lifestyle.

The contract killer wears Windsor-rimmed sunglasses, even when he’s sleeping — upright, pistol-at-hand, in the comfiest chair in any hotel room or apartment he rents. His outdoor uniform is a stocking cap and trench coat which covers his leather weapons harness/vest.

He is a loner with only an ancient leather suitcase that carries his arsenal and a few clothes, a violin case and a houseplant, “My only friend . . . always happy.”

Mathilda weeps for her kid brother, not her abusive father, his latest wife or her jazzercise-obsessed half-sister. And when Leon bluntly tells her his line of work, she wants to know his price, and hearing that, if he can teach her to “clean.”

The film’s light treatment of this is seriously twisted. He teaches her his rules — “No women, no kids” — borrowed from the hitman thrillers of John Woo. He explains the levels of expertise killers-for-hire acquire. Sniping from afar, at first, with ‘the knife’ being the close quarters weapon you master last, after you’ve grown hardened to murdering.

The training is chilling, but cute.

Mathilda wants to execute the men who killed her little brother. Leon doesn’t discourage this and goes as far to offer her a pistol. That lack of boundaries and push-back will bring the full weight of New York law enforcement down on them.

What sticks with you about the film is that first hit, an epic one-man assault on a territory-violating heavy surrounded by body guards.

“Somebody’s coming up. Somebody serious.”

Eric Serra’s score, romantically orchestral if a tad nervy, adds sleigh bells when violence is coming. That’s been copied in many a thriller score since.

Leon comes at his victims from above, and below, one at a time and then in a group. Bullets perforate the metal shutters to the mobster’s rental. We can guess what happened to the mugs on the balcony when the blinds were dropped, blocking our view.

Leon is a film that whips the viewer around, snaps him back in his seat and makes him cringe at the adorable business of teaching a child to ‘clean’ and the relationship rendered inappropriate simply by virtue of Leon’s childishness and Mathilda’s imitations of maturity.

Besson launched the Transporter series, dabbled in sci-fi (The Fifth Element), and produced, wrote and/or directed films like Lucy and Anna. Very young, very skinny and girlish women have been a regular feature of his thrillers, either as objects of desire to be transported, or petite young things who kill.

He even gave his then-much-younger wife Milla Jovovich her own epic, The Messenger.

Whatever eyebrows his predilections used to raise were once dismissed as “That’s guys in the movie biz for you,” and “Well, he’s FRENCH.” Now, post-Weinstein, not so much.

But in a way, that transgressive edge adds to the disquiet of The Professional, a movie that would be all flashy technique and Oldman without Mathilda, Portman and Reno’s “Leon” struggling to figure out what to do with her and how to take her.

For my money, it’s every bit the classic that its contemporary thriller, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is thought to be, a film that engages, thrills and repels in equal measure.












Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


Comedy Podcast with Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini
Bahamas Relief Fund
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
fashion,brenda by Liz Hodson
Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal(514) 844-2172
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
Photo by David Lieber:
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis