Apparently, I have been on a Natalie Portman movie binge this past couple of weeks. So, maybe 2 of her films in a row does not exactly make me the Joe DiMaggio of movie reviews, but she is the lead 3 of the last 5, which is certainly not too shabby. I am just a simple man trying to earn my stripes as everyone’s friendly neighborhood Natalie Portman expert. Do I sound creepy? Yes? Excellent.
“Léon” is Portman’s film debut at the young age of 11. She plays Matilda, the daughter of abusive parents that get killed in a botched drug deal. Léon (Jean Reno) is her neighbor, who also happens to be the most lethal and efficient hitman in New York. Léon takes Matilda in to protect her from imminent danger, and they form a sort of relationship that is both adorable and unsettling at times. They both use each other for companionship, an aspect of life that they both are desperately missing. But just as it can be cute, Léon also reluctantly teaches Matilda how to do what he does so she can use these skills to take avenge the death of her family. Meanwhile, Stansfield (Gary Oldman) is feverishly trying to hunt down the missing daughter and cover up his tracks, because not only is he the head of the drug dealers, but he is also a prominent figure at the Department of Justice (NO COLLUSION!).
The film’s main focal point is the relationship between Matilda and Léon. As I said before, their dynamic oscillates from sweet and sympathetic, to deranged and unstable quite frequently. Matilda quickly develops feelings for Léon that, as a viewer, you are naturally inclined to believe resemble that as a daughter loving the father she never had. But Matilda, coming from a home where she was abused, is unable to process her emotions properly and acts on it as if it were a sexual attraction. First, I am going to make a joke: Her mindset reminds me of a line from Roger from American Dad where he tells a contractor who was remodeling their kitchen “You are ugly, smelly, not fun, and just my type”. Now for the more serious analysis. It is an interesting and risky proposition to have your child female lead play a sexualized character. Léon, thankfully, never plays on her advances, and we assume it is because he knows better and looks at her like his daughter. However, the explanation he gives Matilda is that the last woman he loved was killed, which seems to be a way of not breaking Matilda’s heart by going down the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” route. I can read in between the lines but I am slightly fearful that other people could interpret that as him saying he would in another situation. But this is what is to be expected when juggling a taboo subject like this and I do believe the film so openly chooses the father-daughter relationship, that it would be a serious stretch to believe anything else.
Then, of course, we must discuss the moral implications of teaching a 12-year-old to become a murderer for hire. It’s bad. Next! What? You demand more? Oh, I’ll feed you, Seymour. In the real world, if you teach a child how to make money killing people, you deserve to be thrown into a cell. But if there is a camera nearby, and the child happens to be an actress the talent-level of Natalie Portman, then I think we could make an exception because it makes for very entertaining cinema. There is a beautifully composed scene where Léon teaches Matilda how to shoot a sniper rifle by aiming at random strangers jogging in the park. The audience is very fearful that she is just going to start picking off innocent civilians as a training exercise, but when it is revealed that she is firing paintballs, it actually feels heartwarming. Léon does not know much. He cannot read. He lives alone. He does not even watch over his own money and is likely being scammed by his friend. The only thing he knows is his job and he uses his knowledge to form the most meaningful connection he has ever had. Considering his best friend before Matilda is a house plant, it makes this unorthodox connection very impactful.
Reno plays Léon with an understated grace that makes him endearing despite his violent profession. He comes off as loveable and very sympathetic. He seems innocent yet intelligent at the same time. He is lonely and has nothing except his job and his aforementioned houseplant friend. It is clear that he did not choose his life because it offered him comfort at the expense of others, rather he was trapped in this line of work because it is his only marketable skill. He is a complex character that is easy for audiences to grow attached to.
Portman is different than Reno. Her character is charismatic and loud. She tries to hide her naivety, the same way she tries to hide the fact that she watches ‘Transformers’ cartoons. In both instances, she thinks she is doing a better job than she is. But she is tasked with carrying much of the film’s dialogue, all while dealing with very mature themes. This is an impressive feat for any actress, let alone one that was not even a teenager. Her best scenes are the ones she is emotionally connecting with Léon. The two of them have great chemistry within their pseudo-Oedipus-like odd couple team. It is uncomfortable to see such a young girl be sexualized the way she is, but I believe that to be the point. Portman burdens this task and does an exemplary job.
I do not know if I am part of the popular opinion when I say I did not love Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Stansfield. It is not that he is bad, because he certainly isn’t. He is very threatening and charismatic, which is really what everyone wants in an antagonist. Perhaps I am nitpicking, but I felt there were times he was so over-the-top, he did not feel real. I was left with the impression that Oldman read the script, thought his character was too normal and put everything he had to spice things up. He is entertaining for sure, and I do always say that is the primary goal of making a film like this, but if he were to dial it back just ever so slightly on two or three occasions, I feel that he would fit better within the reality the film created. It is honestly a small criticism and I can understand people not sharing this opinion with me.
I did like this movie. I recommend watching the extended cut, as I did just so you can see the film with the same vision the director had before they were forced to cut back for theatrical releases. I believe the balance between action and intimate storytelling makes this film appeal to most audiences.
I give “Léon: The Professional” a lethal 8.6 out of 10
Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello, Peter Appel
Runtime: 1 Hour and 50 Minutes