Meet Mathilda (Natalie Portman), one half of the dynamic duo that forms the heart of Luc Bresson’s “Leon” (1994, mostly known in the U.S. as “The Professional”). One day, her family sends her out to buy groceries, and her father, mother, sister and brother are gunned down by the mentally unhinged Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his buddies. She escapes by taking refuge with a kind neighbor, who takes her in when she has nowhere else to go.
Leon (Jean Reno), that kindly neighbor, also has a few secrets of his own, the biggest one being his profession: hitman for hire. Leon’s a smart guy, a true professional, and he knows the dangers in picking up a stray; he also knows the men who offed her family broke the rules (“No women. No kids.”), and he feels an obligation to right that wrong, even if vendettas are bad for business.
Of course, Mathilda is no Vito Corleone, willing to wait 20+ years for vengeance; she wants those men to pay, and she wants to do it; so she convinces Leon to teach her his trade, to turn her into a killing machine.
Did I forget to mention that she’s only 12?
Not the most conventional setup, I’ll admit, but it showcases the best part of the film, the bonding process between the two leads. Mathilda grew up in a family of neglect and abuse, and Leon never knew love, and they both find the family that was missing. The violence they commit together does come across as a bonding ritual; instead of Turkey day feasts, they kill people. Hey, every family’s different…
To say much more about the plot would be giving too much away, but some interesting twists and turns hit our little family, and the film ends the only way it could have ended. For all the touchy-feeliness of the family, the whole product leaves me a bit cold, but the performances, especially Reno’s, shine through anyway.
Portman, making her film debut, gives a solid performance, but all these years later, you can tell she’s acting in parts. Fortunately, she loses herself in the character more often than not, and she has certainly grown as an actress.
Good enough reason as any to see it.
Written and directed Luc Bresson
Starring: Jean Reno (Leon)
Natalie Portman (Mathilda)
Gary Oldman (Stansfield)