Sunday, March 23, 2008

Léon (aka The Professional - International Uncut Version)

The Action Mutant…
is a professional…somethingerother.

Léon: The Professional

review by Joe Burrows

I remember thinking, in my more formative years, the same thing you probably thought at one time…the French make Action films? Those “cheese eating, surrender monkeys” (per Groundskeeper Willie)? Yeah, it was a shocker to me, too. We Americans have been taught purportedly that the French are not exactly fighters and that their most famous military leader provides the name for the complex that highlights “shortcomings”. Their pro wrestlers are always either effeminate, weirdo types or scummy, mustache twirlers and they are always the villains in our movies. But, as the tagline goes, “a hero shall rise”. And this Luc Besson guys seems to be a good judge of them. (Note: This is a review of the 133 minute “Uncut, International Version”, as opposed to the 109 minute American theatrical version.)

The Plot, as it was:
Jean Reno (Ronin, Mission: Impossible) plays Leon, a quiet man that waters his plant daily, drinks plenty of milk and kills people for a living. However, his simple world goes apeshit when he takes in his 12 year old neighbor Mathilda (Natalie Portman). Her family was just blown away due to a botched drug sale by Stansfield, a psychotic, pill crunching cop (Gary Oldman) with a penchant for Beethoven. Mathilda has no remorse for her rotten parents and stepsister but wants revenge for her little brother that got caught in the crossfire. Leon begrudgingly trains Mathilda to be a “cleaner” (hitman) so she can get her revenge but it doesn’t take long for the situation to become personal for Leon as well.

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Léon: The Professional (or The Professional, as it is known in the States) is that rare combo of bloody action and heart filled drama, without being overly sentimental or insulting. Writer/Director Besson is savvy enough to keep his main characters uncompromised, as Mathilda is never cloyingly cute nor is Leon totally softened by his new intrusion. A dumber craftsman would have exploited the angle of Mathilda’s intimate feelings for Leon but the story never takes that turn and instead turns it into an oddly touching ideal of hero worship. Reno is just right for his role; he comes off as nothing but genuine and continues the tradition of the great Action hero by doing much with very little. Portman is just fucking tremendous here (her first feature film!), hitting all of her marks and never over or underplaying her emotions. To say this is one of the best performances by a child actor is not an understatement, as she plays off of her more experienced co-star with ease. Some of their scenes are genuinely heartbreaking, telling the tale of people making one mistake that changes their lives forever with no repair. Of course, both top shelf performances are easy to overlook when the wild eyed, background chewing presence of Gary Oldman shows up. Sporting a “I’ve been up for five days and FUCK…where’s my coke?!?” look, Oldman’s Stansfield inflects every line with a sardonic insanity and uncomfortable menace. He looks like he’s about to attack whoever he speaks to, which makes his scene with Mathilda the most disturbing. True, he’s over the top but his interaction with the two leads is minimal so he never takes away from them and he infuses the movie with energy when it needs it. The violence is usually sudden but adds to the poetic feel of the pic, especially in the final moments. The final result is an unusually powerful film that sticks with you for days afterwards. My kind of movie!

Body Count/Violence: 34. Leon lives up to his moniker quite well. He usually takes out his foes with precision gunfire but throws in a hanging via piano wire and some grenade attacks for fun. There’s also rocket launcher use, more bloody shooting and Mathilda’s father (Michael Badalucco) smacking his kid around and the results of it.

Sexuality/Nudity: Portman was at that stage where she was still a cute girl though it was becoming apparent she would be a hottie in a few years. She’s in a bra and underwear in some scenes but it’s not meant for titillation, lest I rile up the pedophile sect with this review.

Language/Dialogue: Strong at times, though that’s usually when Leon’s boss Tony (Danny Aiello) is on the screen.

How bad was it?:
The French elitists drubbed it initially but they eventually caught up to everyone else’s opinion that this is an Action masterwork. Nary a bad review exists, with Ebert’s sub par **1/2 grade coming the closest.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
Columbia Pictures released The Professional in America on 11/18/94 at 109 minutes, excising the sexual tension that Mathilda had for Leon that had made test screeners nervous. Though it didn’t stick around long here, it was termed a modest sleeper in making $19.5 million off of a $16 million budget. It earned an additional $26 million overseas and it has definitely grown in cult standing in the years since (and due to the release of the Uncut version).

Film: ****1/2/*****
Entertainment value: ****1/2/*****

Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.

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