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|Léon: The Professional|
French theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Luc Besson|
|Produced by||Patrice Ledoux|
|Written by||Luc Besson|
|Music by||Éric Serra|
|Edited by||Sylvie Landra|
|Distributed by||Gaumont Buena Vista International|
|Box office||$46.1 million|
Léon: The Professional (French: Léon), known as Leon in the UK (and originally titled The Professional in the US and Australia), is a 1994 English-language French thriller film written and directed by Luc Besson. It stars Jean Reno and Gary Oldman, and features the motion picture debut of Natalie Portman. In the film, Léon (Reno), a professional hitman, reluctantly takes in 12-year-old Mathilda (Portman), after her family is murdered by corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agent Norman Stansfield (Oldman). Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the hitman's trade.
Léon Montana (Jean Reno) is an Italian hitman (or "cleaner", as he refers to himself) living a solitary life in New York City's Little Italy. His work comes from a mafioso named Tony (Danny Aiello). Léon spends his idle time engaging in calisthenics, nurturing a houseplant, and watching old films.
One day, Léon meets Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman), a lonely 12-year-old girl. Mathilda lives with her dysfunctional family in an apartment down the hall, and has stopped attending class at her school for troubled girls. Mathilda's abusive father (Michael Badalucco) attracts the ire of corrupt DEA agents, who have been paying him to stash cocaine in his apartment. After they discover he has been cutting the cocaine to keep for himself, DEA agents storm the building, led by sharply dressed drug addict Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). During the raid, Stansfield quickly becomes unhinged and murders Mathilda's entire family while she is out shopping for groceries. When Mathilda returns, she realizes what has happened just in time to continue down the hall to Léon's apartment, who hesitantly gives her shelter.
Mathilda quickly discovers that Léon is a hitman. She begs him to take care of her and to teach her his skills, as she wants to avenge the murder of her four-year-old brother. At first, Léon is unsettled by her presence, and considers murdering her, but he eventually trains Mathilda and shows her how to use various weapons. In exchange, she runs his errands, cleans his apartment, and teaches him how to read. In time, the pair forms a close bond. Mathilda often tells Léon she loves him, but he refuses to reciprocate.
When Léon heads out for an apparent assignment, Mathilda fills a bag with guns from Léon's collection and sets out to kill Stansfield. She bluffs her way into the DEA office by posing as a delivery girl, only to be ambushed by Stansfield in a bathroom; one of his men arrives and announces that Léon had just killed one of the corrupt DEA agents in Chinatown that morning. Léon, after discovering her plan in a note left for him, rescues Mathilda, shooting two more of Stansfield's men in the process. An enraged Stansfield confronts Tony, who is violently interrogated for Léon's whereabouts.
As Mathilda and Léon recover from the ordeal, Mathilda attempts to seduce Léon. Léon refuses, instead opening up about how he became a cleaner; when Léon was young in Italy, he was in love with a girl from a wealthy family. The two made plans to elope, but when the girl's father discovered their relationship, he killed her out of anger and escaped justice. Léon killed the man out of revenge and fled to New York, where he met Tony and trained to become a cleaner.
Later, while Mathilda returns home from grocery shopping, a NYPD ESU team sent by Stansfield captures her and attempts to infiltrate Léon's apartment. Léon ambushes the ESU team and rescues Mathilda. Léon creates a quick escape for Mathilda by smashing a hole in an air shaft; he then reassures her, and tells her that he loves her, moments before the police blow up the apartment. In the chaos that follows, Léon sneaks out of the building disguised as a wounded ESU officer; he goes unnoticed save for Stansfield, who follows him and shoots him in the back. As he is dying, Léon places an object in Stansfield's hands that he says is "from Mathilda" before succumbing to his wounds; Stansfield discovers that it is a grenade pin. He then opens Léon's vest to find a cluster of active grenades which detonate, killing Stansfield.
Mathilda goes to Tony, as Léon had told her to do in the event of his death. Tony tells Mathilda he had been instructed by Léon to give his money to her if anything happened to him; he offers to hold it and provide the money on an allowance basis. Mathilda returns to school and meets the headmistress, who readmits her after Mathilda reveals what had happened to her. She then walks onto a field near the school to plant Léon's houseplant, as she had told Léon that he should "give it roots".
Léon: The Professional is to some extent an expansion of an idea in Besson's earlier 1990 film, La Femme Nikita (in some countries Nikita). In La Femme Nikita Jean Reno plays a similar character named Victor. Besson described Léon as "Now maybe Jean is playing the American cousin of Victor. This time he's more human."
While most of the interior footage was shot in France, the rest of the film was shot on location in New York. The final scene at the school was filmed at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.
A soundtrack for the film was released in October 1994. It was commercially successful in Japan, being certified gold for 100,000 copies shipped in December 1999.
Léon: The Professional received favorable reviews from critics. The film holds a 71% positive aggregate rating based on 59 critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 6.7/10. The site's consensus states, "Pivoting on the unusual relationship between seasoned hitman and his 12-year-old apprentice—a breakout turn by young Natalie Portman—Luc Besson's Léon is a stylish and oddly affecting thriller". At Metacritic, the film received an average score of 64 based on 12 reviews, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".
Mark Salisbury of Empire magazine awarded the film a full five stars. He said, "Oozing style, wit and confidence from every sprocket, and offering a dizzyingly, fresh perspective on the Big Apple that only Besson could bring, this is, in a word, wonderful". Mark Deming at AllMovie awarded the film four stars out of five, describing it as "As visually stylish as it is graphically violent", and featuring "a strong performance from Jean Reno, a striking debut by Natalie Portman, and a love-it-or-hate-it, over-the-top turn by Gary Oldman". Richard Schickel of Time magazine lauded the film, writing, "this is a Cuisinart of a movie, mixing familiar yet disparate ingredients, making something odd, possibly distasteful, undeniably arresting out of them". He praised Oldman's performance as "divinely psychotic".
Roger Ebert awarded the film two-and-a-half stars out of four, writing: "It is a well-directed film, because Besson has a natural gift for plunging into drama with a charged-up visual style. And it is well acted." However, he was not entirely complimentary: "Always at the back of my mind was the troubled thought that there was something wrong about placing a 12-year-old character in the middle of this action. ... In what is essentially an exercise—a slick urban thriller—it seems to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it." The New York Times' Janet Maslin wrote, "The Professional is much too sentimental to sound shockingly amoral in the least. Even in a finale of extravagant violence, it manages to be maudlin … Mr. Oldman expresses most of the film's sadism as well as many of its misguidedly poetic sentiments."
Léon: The Professional was a commercial success, grossing over $45 million worldwide on a $16 million budget.
Léon: The Professional won the Czech Lion Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing – Foreign Feature. The film was also nominated for seven César Awards in 1995, namely Best Film, Best Actor (Jean Reno), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Music, and Best Sound.
In the 2013 book, Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the '90s, Marc Spitz wrote that the film is "considered a cult classic". In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films; Léon: The Professional was listed at No. 42. The character Norman Stansfield has since been named by several publications as one of cinema's greatest villains.
The British band Alt-J released a song about the film, titled "Matilda" [sic]. The first line in the lyrics, "this is from Matilda", refer to Léon's last words to Stansfield, shortly before the grenades detonate and kills them. The Bollywood film Bichhoo was inspired by Léon: The Professional.
South Korean comedian Park Myeong-su and singer-songwriter IU released and performed a song inspired by the film, "Leon", for a bi-annual music festival of South Korea's highly popular variety show, Infinite Challenge, in 2015.
Besson wrote a script for a sequel, Mathilda, but filming was delayed until Portman was older. In the script, Mathilda was described as "older" and "more mature," and was working as a cleaner. However, in the meantime, Besson left Gaumont Film Company to start his own movie studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at Besson's departure, Gaumont Film Company "has held The Professional rights close to the vest — and will not budge".
In 2011, director Olivier Megaton told reporters that he and Besson used the script for Mathilda as the basis for Colombiana, a film about a young cleaner played by Zoe Saldana. Like Mathilda, her character goes to war with a drug cartel as revenge for the murder of her family when she was a child.
There is also an extended version of the film, referred to as "international version," "version longue," or "version intégrale". Containing 25 minutes of additional footage, it is sometimes called the "Director's Cut" but Besson refers to the original version as the Director's Cut and the new version as "The Long Version". According to Besson, this is the version he wanted to release, but for the fact that the extra scenes tested poorly with Los Angeles preview audiences. The additional material is found in the film's second act, and it depicts more of the interactions and relationship between Léon and Mathilda, as well as explicitly demonstrating how Mathilda accompanies Léon on several of his hits as "a full co-conspirator", to further her training as a contracted killer.
The extended version of Léon was shown as "version longue" in French cinemas in 1996, and then released on VHS. It was subsequently released as "version intégrale" on LaserDisc and later Region 2 DVD in Japan. It appeared as the "international version" on Region 1 DVD in North America in 2000, and was re-issued in 2005. It was first released in the United Kingdom in 2009 as the "Director's Cut."
The film, a campy, stylish, ultraviolent tale about a solitary hit man (Jean Reno) and the little girl he grows to love, is called The Professional in America, Léon everywhere else. Natalie Portman was the girl, Matilda. It's now considered a cult classic.
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