Thursday, March 21, 2013

MOVIES MADE ME #55: The Professional (1994)

"Leon and Matilda" (private commission) by Tim Bradstreet
First things first: A gripe about Netflix.  While they said they were sending me LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, what they actually sent was THE PROFESSIONAL.  Fans of this film know that there are two versions.  The shorter name designates the U.S. theatrical release and the longer name designates the French cut, which includes about 25 minutes of material that was deemed too risque for American audiences.  The deleted material amplifies the sexual tension between the childlike "cleaner" Leon and precocious 12-year-old orphan Matilda, and also shows Matilda taking an active role in several of his violent executions.  I haven't seen that version for a few years, so I should probably limit my comments to the U.S. theatrical version, which I watched again last night.  This version is the one I fell in love with when I first saw it in 1994 at the Greenbrier theater in Charlottesville, Virginia.

As I remember it, THE PROFESSIONAL came out a few weeks after NATURAL BORN KILLERS and PULP FICTION.  It was a good year for career criminals.  As a testoserone-driven teenager, I was eager for writer/director Luc Besson's followup to LA FEMME NIKITA / POINT OF NO RETURN.  I remember being completely adrenalized by the opening sequence of THE PROFESSIONAL, in which a shadowy hitman wipes out an entire team of goofy-looking drug runners (are they supposed to look like an 80s hair band?) without breaking a sweat.  The laconic badass routine always makes for a popular hero.  Jean Reno is so laconic and so badass that I couldn't tell if this sequence was meant to be a parody or not.  Whatever the case, it didn't matter.  I wasn't one to complain about over-the-top violence, regardless of the filmmaker's intent.

In the next sequence, Leon meets his match.  Intro Natalie Portman.  What the future Oscar-winner projects in this film, above all, is sense of purpose.  Her performance works because she is deadly serious about being a cleaner, deadly serious about being in love, deadly serious about being an adult trapped in a kid's body.  All of these things may have made some viewers uncomfortable -- the issue of children growing up too fast is a very sensitive issue -- but they define a character who is very real in her earnestness.  Presumably this role came somewhat naturally to Portman, who went on to play equally precocious roles in HEAT (1995) and BEAUTIFUL GIRLS (1996).  In those films, as in THE PROFESSIONAL, the actress conveys an authentic innocence that keeps things balanced.  This film could have easily slipped into exploitation mode, but it never does.

Jean Reno's performance helps to achieve the balance.  His silly obsession with drinking milk, his genuine affection for his houseplant (his only friend, until Matilda comes along), and the casualness with which he gives voice to a pig-faced potholder make him impossible to dislike.  Hitman or no, he remains innocent.  Behind the ruthless efficiency of a killer is a big heart.  I seem to remember that in one of the scenes in the longer cut, Leon talks about his transformation from child to hitman.  He says he didn't choose this path; it chose him.  He saw his childhood girlfriend murdered, and that event transformed him.  Matilda undergoes the same transformation after her little brother is murdered by DEA agents.

These two characters are bound together, against all odds, because the ugliness of life has stricken both of them at their more impressionable age.  There's a scene in which Matilda asks Leon, "Is life always this hard, or just when you're young?"  He contemplates the question for a moment, then answers coldly, "Always this hard."  At the time, he believes it.  Understandably, Matilda responds by trying to grow up fast so that she can fight back, and make order out of chaos.  In a world of wanton violence, she finds the one person who won't either exploit her or discard her.   Leon begins to love her like a father, and that transforms him for the second time in his life.  He realies that life isn't always so hard.  He and Matilda show each other a more beautiful side of life, and that ultimately prevents her from becoming a killer (at least, in the American edit...).

Of course, they still have to confront a few obstacles along the way -- the biggest of which is Gary Oldman.  When Natalie Portman presented the Best Actor Oscar last year, I really wanted Oldman to win.  Not because I particularly liked TINKER TINKER SOLDIER SPY, but because I wanted to see Portman onstage with the actor who had played Stansfield, the psychotic DEA agent who tried to kill her in her first film.  Portman and Oldman's most memorable scene together in THE PROFESSIONAL is one in which Matilda goes to kill Stansfield, and he turns the tables on her.   Stansfield taunts her with his crazy-guy routine and makes her feel small and helpless... He makes her feel like a vulnerable kid, which is exactly what she has been fighting so hard against.  Matilda cries, even though she doesn't want to, because she is -- after all -- just a kid.  Stansfield responds not with parental compassion, but with sadistic glee.  He hovers inches away from her face and asks her if she likes being alive.  She manages to nod, and he responds: "Good.  Because I take no pleasure in taking a life from someone who doesn't appreciate it."  Whatever the viewer's misgivings about the sexual tension between Leon and Matilda, it is clear in this moment that Stansfield is the real corrupter of innocence. 
Oldman has made a career out of playing memorably eccentric characters.  Reflecting on his acting resume (SID & NANCY, ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN, JFK, DRACULA, TRUE ROMANCE, IMMORTAL BELOVED, HANNIBAL, BATMAN, HARRY POTTER, etc.), I can't help thinking that this guy deserves some kind of major award for being so damn versatile.  He is truly one of the greatest actors of his generation.  His character in THE PROFESSIONAL is one note, but that one note is unpredictability.  We never know what Stansfield is going to do, or how crazy he really is.  Would he kill a 12-year-old girl in the bathroom of a DEA building?  The fact that he does a popper (is that the right phrase?  "takes a popper"?  "pops a popper"?) before making his decision suggests that anything is possible.  Oldman's character, like most aspects of the film, is alternately horrific and humorous.  It would have been easy enough, I suppose, for Besson to make a cynical film about an unremittingly bleak world in which children are corrupted by sadistic adults... but that's not what this film is.  THE PROFESSIONAL is about characters trying to protect whatever innocence they've got left.  Even Stansfield becomes childlike at times, in his unguarded appreciation for Beethoven and in his (drug-fueled) impulsive behavior.  When he gets shot in the shoulder, Stansfield throws a mini-tantrum because the shooter "ruined my suit!"

This wasn't exactly the film I was expecting in 1994.  I was simply rooting for a high-octane hitman movie with plenty of explosions.  The finale delivers on that front, but it's the father/daughter story that makes the film stand out all these years later.  It's the unlikely love story that viewers remember.  When I hear Eric Serra's distinctive score for this film (which is, in my opinion, one of the best film scores in recent memory), it conjures up vivid images and abstract emotions, all of which go back to one simple idea -- an idea beautifully illustrated above by the artwork of Tim Bradstreet.  THE PROFESSIONAL is about creating a world inside, or at least allowing for a world inside, that can offset the ugliness outside.  It's about Protection.

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