May 12, 2013

Léon: The Professional

Luc Besson, 1994

          Leon (Jean Reno) is a reclusive hit-man that lives his life with a disciplined, strict routine. He doesn't let any living thing get close, other than his simple apartment plant that he waters meticulously. When his young neighbor (Natalie Portman) gets caught up in the middle of her drug dealing father's police raid, she comes knocking at Leon's door looking for refuge.
          The film opens with helicopter shots of the old New York. The post-Taxi Driver, pre-Giuliani New York. There is a grittiness to the streets, and a grime to the aged apartment walls. Leon's professionalism and attention to detail is apparent. You realize early on that you're not going to be in the company of the typical New York stockbrokers and sky gazing tourists but in the seedy underbelly of the Big Apple.
          Jean Reno is perfect in his role as Leon. You feel intimidated at first but you sympathize with him and soon as you see him sit in isolation in his dirty apartment with the glass of milk. Gary Oldman plays Stansfield, an idiosyncratic crooked cop that pops these mysterious pills moments before a situation is about to turn ugly. Oldman is chameleonic in this film like he is in EVERY role, but this role made me particularly nostalgic of some of his old performances - such as Jackie Flannery in State of Grace or as Drexl Spivey in True Romance. Natalie Portman really displays some young talent, adding another great credit to her early years as she did in Heat. Her character Matilda, inspired by Jodie Foster's character Iris in Taxi Driver, is a disturbed young girl who has endured years of domestic abuse. She is developmentally confused, inappropriately wise beyond her years, and ready to open another dark chapter when she meets Leon.
          The lonely apartment plant provides some noticeable symbolism. Leon dutifully waters this plant and even tells Matilda it's his "best friend". She tells him that he should place the plant in soil and let it grow roots. Leon himself struggles to grow roots, having to often vacate these run-down apartments on a moments notice and move on to the next one. He is also bound to the service of his crime-boss who also serves as his under-the-table bank teller. Ironically, one could argue that Leon will not be completely free until the plant is placed in the ground.
          Leon is guilty of falling into that Scorcesian template, which is not necessarily a bad thing but seems to be a road often traveled. I suppose that it's hard to avoid when filming a crime drama in New York City. In the end you're treated to another well-directed, bullet-fueled story that clearly carves out its own niche. It deserves the praise it receives and sits well in the company of the other films in this category.

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