Those familiar with French filmmaker Luc Besson's 1990 cult hit LA FEMME NIKITA may feel a sense of deja-vu watching another killer learn to love in THE PROFESSIONAL. This story of a hit man who befriends a troubled little girl has abundant style and little substance--which hurt it in a
year when two or three high-profile crime pictures had plenty of both.
Professional hit man extraordinaire Leon (Jean Reno) lives in New York and works for Mob Capo "Big Tony" (Danny Aiello). In the apartment next door lives 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman); from the first time we see Leon and Mathilda together, it's obvious that they're kindred spirits. One
day, villainous Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) shows up and guns down Mathilda's father, a drug dealer, along with the rest of her family. When she seeks refuge with Leon, he takes her in and protects her. Mathilda asks Leon to teach her to be a "cleaner" like him, so she can avenge her family.
Leon agrees, and over the course of her training, they grow close, and Leon comes to realize there's more to living than killing.
When Mathilda discovers Stansfield is a DEA agent, she prematurely seeks her revenge and is arrested by the Feds. Leon storms the Justice Department to rescue her, killing several agents in the process. Later, Stansfield visits Big Tony to discover the identity of the hit man who killed his men.
A SWAT team is dispatched to wipe out Leon and Mathilda, but Leon fends them off single-handed and helps Mathilda escape. After a final showdown between Stansfield and Leon, the two die together in an explosion.
Luc Besson is a masterly director of stylish, thrilling, and humorous action set pieces, and this film's bravura opening and closing sequences are two of the year's best. In between, the film is weakened by flawed characterization. Leon's a remarkable killing machine, but he never really emerges
as a human being (we're meant to love him instantly because of his fondness for gardening and Gene Kelly movies). As a result, his redemptive relationship with Mathilda feels forced and rather maudlin--the filmmakers probably felt they needed to heighten the sentimentality in order to outflank any
suggestion of pederasty--and his death isn't as affecting as it should be.
THE PROFESSIONAL is Besson's first American production, but the film has a decidedly European feel. Thierry Arbogast's artfully framed cinematography lends a weird prettiness to slummy Manhattan locales and bloody corpses. Looking like a very languid Sly Stallone, Reno is well cast as Leon,
although he's saddled with some insipid dialogue; Oldman tries to play chilling and weird, but he's just weird. It's film newcomer Portman who steals the show. Mathilda is at times a sympathetic waif, a playful little girl, a cold-hearted killer, and a burgeoning Lolita--and the 12-year-old
actress is up to every challenge. Hopefully, we can look forward to a "Mathilda the Cleaner" sequel. (Graphic violence, adult situations, language.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1994
- Rating: R
- Review: Those familiar with French filmmaker Luc Besson's 1990 cult hit LA FEMME NIKITA may feel a sense of deja-vu watching another killer learn to love in THE PROFESSIONAL. This story of a hit man who befriends a troubled little girl has abundant style and littl… (more)