leon1I first saw Luc Besson’s English-language debut in its American release as The Professional. It was playing at a second-run theater not long after my mother died, during a time when any movie I saw could stir up the mourning process (a process that never ends – I’m the guy who thinks Guardians of the Galaxy is a fantasy of grief.) The Professional certainly stirred me. The heroine’s violent separation from her (admittedly unsympathetic) parents made me connect to the movie in a way that I didn’t usually connect to action movies. But this wasn’t like other action movies, more violent and more sentimental at the same time, and definitely more crazy. I loved The Professional 20 years ago, but I never saw another Luc Besson movie I liked nearly as much. Was it really that good, or was it the times? Revisiting the film this week, it had me before its masterful opening set piece was over.

The movie opens with a sweeping birds-eye shot that flies over water and woodland before approaching the magic city: New York. The graceful, frantic camera tours the streets of Manhattan, passing through Times Square, Chinatown and Little Italy before taking us inside the Supreme Macaroni Company (the restaurant used, which has since been demolished, was actually near the Port Authority uptown). Comic-book compositions introduce the film’s characters in stylish fragments. We meet Léon in a close-up of his hands, flat on a checkered tablecloth on either side of a glass of milk. We see Tony (Danny Aiello) through the reflection of Léon’s sunglasses, which he wears indoors. Tony has an assignment for Léon, and the film quickly immerses us in the world of an extremely efficient killer who somehow gets around the highly-armed men protecting his target. Léon, following instructions, lets his target go, but not before killing his entire security detail in the process.

Léon’s bloodcurdling efficiency may be unreal, but Besson knows how to put together a credible, thrilling gunfight. Contemporary action movies are too often filled with incomprehensible, frenetically edited scenes where it’s impossible to see where the shooter and his target are at any given time. Besson sets his scenes carefully so you know exactly where the target is. And he pulls off the brilliant trick of making you always guess where Léon is, putting you in the position of the assassin’s unlucky targets. The movie is barely ten minutes old when our protagonist has murdered half a dozen people. And you can’t wait to see what he does next.

leon2This opening scene of professional brutality is followed by an act of tenderness. Léon’s job has its risks, but the greater risk for him is, like for so many movie gunmen before him, that of human connection. He goes home to his apartment building (its hallways shot at the infamous and now gentrified Hotel Chelsea), where 12-year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) waits outside her apartment, avoiding her family. She hides a bruise inflicted by her abusive father, and a cigarette that she asks Léon not to tell her father she’s smoking. He promises he won’t. The relationship between Léon and Mathilda is at times uncomfortably ambiguous, but this meeting establishes the killer as her protector, an avuncular figure who is a deadly hit man but an awkward (and illiterate) man.

This scene also establishes the movie’s great villain, Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Where Léon (and Jean Reno) is restrained, Oldman’s corrupt DEA agent is operatically hammy, taking a hit out of a capsule and going into rubbery conniptions captured by a perfectly timed overhead shot. Stansfield and his men are there to put pressure on Mathilda’s father, who stashed drugs for the feds but made the unfortunate decision to skim some off the top. Soon the rogue DEA agents kill Mathilda’s entire family, and Léon reluctantly takes Mathilda under his wing.

This odd couple could lead to cloying sentimentality or an uneasy creepy feeling, and if the movie only crosses one of those lines it comes dangerously close to crossing the other. It helps that the movie is kind of absurd. There is any number of scenes that, if they had occurred in the real world, would have quickly had its characters surrounded by cops. But the movie operates in a kind of fantasy state. Léon begins and ends with shots of the New York skyline from across the river, a framing which may suggest that the whole thing comes from the imagination of a troubled adolescent at a private girls school in New Jersey.

Twenty years later, Luc Besson’s days as a reliable action movie director seem like a distant memory, with tepid biopics like 2011’s The Lady and a mixed return to action with this year’s Lucy. Jean Reno has moved from leading action hero movie star to playing a different kind of professional: a chef. Natalie Portman, who made her feature debut in Léon, won an Academy Award for her performance in Black Swan, which I hated. New York’s gritty streets are increasingly hyper-gentrified. But Léon: The Professional holds up as an exciting and dangerous ride through a city that still exists in the mind.

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