HIT AND MISS

The profession of Leon, the title character of director Luc Besson's The Professional, is murder. Like the lethal similar character also played by Jean Reno in Besson's La Femme Nikita, by whom he was probably inspired, Leon is a "cleaner," an assassin of preternatural skill who leaves no traces. This time, however, the setting is New York rather than France, and Leon's employer isn't the government, but the mob.

Leon lives an anomic existence. His apartment is like a monk's cell, his diet appears to consist primarily of milk, his best friend is a potted plant. He exercises, cleans his weapons, and sleeps sitting up--armed, fully dressed, wearing shades. Besson, however, doesn't want us to see this killer as a beast--he wants us, from the start, to like Leon--indeed, to love him. We see Leon at a revival cinema, drop-jawed with wonder at Gene Kelly dancing on skates. The actor, Reno, here creates such a sweet sense of half-witted rapture that Leon becomes an old-fashioned, endearing eccentric. But though Reno (who also appeared in The Big Blue, Besson's boring, schmaltzy film about free-diving) is a striking actor with a fine, sharp-boned peasant's mug, he doesn't really persuade us that he's the unsocialized, monosyllabic mole man we're told he is. No actor could, probably; the role is too flimsily whimsical, too much a screenwriter's conceit. Probably Besson liked the cleaner in La Femme Nikita so much that he wanted to give him his own movie, but while this figure is a great bit part, he can't really carry a protagonist's weight.

Leon's neighbor is a 12-year-old named Matilda (Natalie Portman) whose father (Michael Badalucco) is mixed up with the drug trade. One day, a band of crooked cops, led by a crazed, pill-headed detective (Gary Oldman), invades Matilda's apartment and slaughters her whole family while she's at the store. Leon takes the desperate girl in, and before long, they bond--she has a crush on him, and he is moved to protect her. At her urging, he gives her the only gift he knows: lessons in "cleaning." The plot of The Professional is a framework for a series of long, bloody, deliberately paced action sequences. Each of these scenes--a depiction at the beginning of a typical day's work for Leon, his raid on a police station or his final defense of his and Matilda's pad against a SWAT team--is served up like a showpiece, very much like the production numbers in a musical, and each of them crackles with a seductive, hallucinatory vividness. Besson's shoot-outs suggest what Quentin Tarantino's movies might be like if Tarantino were as visual as he is verbal. Besson's trouble, conversely, is with dialogue and characterization (he also wrote the script). Matilda, mostly because of Portman's unnervingly assured performance, is convincing as a precocious adolescent. If anyone in the cast deserves to be called a professional, it's she. The only performance that's out-and-out bad is Gary Oldman's. He's quite frightening at first, when he's killing off Matilda's family, ambling around the apartment spouting gibberish about his favorite composers between shooting people.

If Oldman displayed a little restraint in the rest of the film, the contrast might make him a truly fine villain. But he tries to play all his subsequent scenes on the same wild level, shrieking words at random and trembling with ecstasy for no reason, and he's abysmal. Smashing as Oldman has been in some of his earlier roles, he's mistaken if he thinks he's one of those Brit actors who can give self-indulgent bad acting so much panache it becomes good.

The comic scenes in which Leon and Matilda find closeness in each other are mawkish, with pedophilic overtones. Probably, Besson intends this sappiness ironically, or at least hopes that the assumption of irony by audiences and critics will help him get away with sexualizing a kid. Portman is directed to play a frankly seductive waif--though not a manipulator; her love for Leon seems to be genuine--and she's costumed and photographed like Madonna in the singer's early videos.

Ironic or not, this is clearly an objectification (someday, I'd guess, the cops will find a copy of The Professional in the video collection of some minister or junior high teacher they're arresting). Yet it seems silly to single out Besson for this, since he has some awareness that he's doing it, and since he at least makes the child a strong character. Besson's coy Gallic fantasizing about playing protector to a streetwise gamine is sort of icky, no question. It's not an uncommon theme in French movies, either--see Serge Bourguignon's 1962 Sundays and Cybäle or Catherine Breillat's 1988 36 Fillette, which is grittier and more sympathetic to the girl. By making this theme less subliminal, Besson may be making it more obviously fantasy, and thus less unhealthy, than the doll-like cheesecake with which young girls are presented, unconsciously, in mainstream movies ranging from James L. Brooks' I'll Do Anything to John Hughes' Curly Sue. At least when Besson thanks 'eaven for leetle girls, it's because they get beeger every day.

 
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