Tuesday, May 24, 2011

REVIEW: Leon: The Professional (1995)

Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman

Mathilda: Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?
Léon: Always like this.

Excellence. The Professional is a 1995 action film that has a plot that’s been done many times both before and after. But when it’s done this well, you won’t find me complaining. This is a good, timeless story, and it’s carried out with grace, power and weight.

A big part of this is due to the actors. The film’s tryst of leads – Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman – all do awesome jobs and really act their hearts out. I think Portman might even be my favorite. I’ve never seen her act this well – not even in Black Swan. She plays a young girl who lives in a crappy apartment with her crappy misogynistic, seedy wart of a father and her family, half of which isn’t even really related to her. When they’re all killed because the father botched up a drug deal (including her little brother, who she does love), Portman seeks revenge and decides she wants to become an assassin.

This character is just wonderful, bringing out all the good and bad of a preteen girl (Portman was very young when she did this role). The scenes in the beginning where she interacts with her family are all very real, as they fight over the TV and shout at one another in a way so coarse and so real that I felt kind of uncomfortable watching it, just like I would if I was at a friend’s house and this kind of thing was going on. There’s one bit where she calls up the school for troubled kids that she’s enrolled in and poses as her mother, saying that she (Portman herself) is dead. That’s depressing. But I also think it really shows the kind of melodrama and over the top angst that a girl at that age usually has.

But she wouldn’t be anything in this movie without Jean Reno, who plays a quiet, reserved hitman named Leon, who lives in the same hotel that she does. When her family is killed, she begs him to take her in, and when she finds out he’s an assassin, she goads him into teaching her how to kill, too. Now, this character isn’t really that original – he’s been done before. The relationship is pretty reminiscent of Terminator 2, with Schwarzenegger and the kid, as well as many other action movies. It’s a very traditional story. But Reno really sells his character, and I found his wide-eyed innocence coupled with the stoic demeanor endearing. He really seemed like the kind of guy who was good at his job but didn’t want to be, like he was forced into it by unfortunate circumstances.

Oldman is…well, it’s Gary Oldman, you know the kind of character he plays, because it’s the same character from The Fifth Element (another Luc Besson movie) and from Book of Eli – a weird, over the top, sadistic madman. Does he just have a quota for these kinds of roles that he has to meet or else they’ll fire him? He does OK here. I found him very entertaining, but his character didn’t have much development and wasn’t one of the more interesting parts of the story. By the end, when you start seeing him more often, he sort of brings down the atmosphere and makes the whole thing more generic.

The directing is powerful and sweeping, with everything falling into place like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There are emotional parts and action-packed parts, and they come together quite wonderfully. The movie is basically about the common bonding between two people and how they help one another. It touches on themes of friendship and humanity – there’s a running thing about how pigs are better than humans because they don’t cause any harm or violence to others. This movie isn’t going to change anyone’s life, but it does tell a good story and does it well.