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Leon: The Professional (Expanded International Version)

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, and Gary Oldman

Written and directed by Luc Besson

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Talking about Leon is impossible without discussing the sexuality of Natalie Portman. Luc Besson's action film, originally called The Professional in North America, offers unusual entre into the sexual contradictions of both the director's more open culture and ours.

A nice girl from New York, Portman was born in Israel in 1981, moved to New York at the age of three, and is now the poster girl for every Star Wars-loving geek in the world. Portman is her grandmother's maiden name, and the actress seeks mightily to protect her family's identity. Currently a student at Harvard, Portman has been quoted numerous times Brandoesquely deriding the job of acting, for — among other things — its limited intellectual potential. In numerous interviews, Portman has also been rabbinically critical of explicit sex and violence in cinema.

Which isn't to deny that she's a wonderfully cute girl, a powerful and intelligent actress, and probably also, as she frequently cites of herself, a role model for other young women. But it is pertinent to ask why she is biting the hand that has fed her, since after all her first role, at the age of 13 (one year older than the age of Nabokov's Lolita when Humbert first sees her) was in Besson's sexually charged neo-noir Leon. Supposedly discovered in a pizza parlor, and almost denied the part, Portman nevertheless threw herself into a role that demanded an uncommon knowingness about violence, revenge, and the power of seduction. And there is no ambiguity about Portman's sexual identity in the film. She is seductive and charming and rebellious. She slips into an almost-sexual relationship with an older man, and teases other men with sexual ideas.

Leon is an unofficial remake of John Cassavetes's Gloria, which doesn't come as much of a surprise, as Besson, like James Cameron, has had trouble in the past with accusations of uninvited borrowings. This time around it's an older man and a young girl, but the circumstances are similar. Mathilda (Portman) is the daughter of a stupid minor gangster who has been siphoning off some drugs for himself. When he is caught at it, his family is wasted. Mathilda escapes the massacre because, like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, she was out of the apartment getting some food at the time. When she comes back to see her family dead, she goes to the door of her mysterious, solitary neighbor Leon (Reno), who not only protects her, but at her insistence begins to give her lessons in killing people. You see, Leon is a hitman. Or, as he prefers to put it, a "cleaner." And the person he ends up protecting Mathilda from, and then helping get revenge against, is the corrupt DEA agent who led the hit on Mathilda's ragged family, played by Gary Oldman, who is absolutely brilliant as a classical music-loving orchestrator of mayhem. It's one of the actor's best performances ever, a blend of cool arrogance and irritation and frustration that can reach Rod Steiger-levels of outrage.

With Leon, Besson expands on a character he developed for La Femme Nikita. Leon goes to his benefactor, played by Danny Aiello, for occasional jobs, which entail killing or threatening rivals. The rest of the time he lives like a milk-drinking monk, another Alan Ladd or Alain Delon, coiled in repose, calm and still, and waiting in his room for the moment to strike. Until he meets Mathilda, the only thing the killer kept alive was his house plant.

Almost a simpleton except for his physical grace and murderous cunning, Leon is otherwise one of Besson's usual naifs. Again like Cameron, Besson returns again and again to tales in which someone sacrifices himself to save another. Besson's wrinkle of individuality with the theme is that often one of the members of this duo of rescuer and rescued is a complete alien, sometimes literally. Jean-Marc Barr in The Big Blue is a living fish who brings his soon-abandoned girlfriend renewed life. Leeloo in The Fifth Element is pure love but a terrible socializer. It's almost inevitable that Besson would do a version of St. Joan; she is the quintessential innocent hosting a murderous savior.

There have been several laserdisc versions of The Professional and a previous DVD, but Columbia TriStar's Leon: The Professional is a replication of the director's preferred cut, which doesn't shorten the violence and also includes increased and longer scenes between Leon and Mathilda. Leon is a good film, but perhaps the 24 minutes of additional footage isn't all essential. The newly added stuff does tend to make the friendship between the killer and the feral child cutesy. On the other hand, it's great to have the whole thing in the format that Besson preferred. Only a four-page booklet gives us details about this production, and there is no commentary track. But then, Besson has probably said everything he has to say about the film in the inevitable, lavishly produced large-format book that appears in France after the release of each of his movies — books that contain the complete screenplay, a meticulous daily account of the production, and scores of stills. For Besson fans, it's worth obtaining.

— D.K. Holm

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