Every once in a while, a film comes along that transcends its genre and ascends to become a cinematic icon. Leon: The Professional is one such film. Now streaming on Netflix, this Luc Besson-directed movie defied stringent categorization upon its release in 1994–and continues to do so today.
Its blend of action, drama, and robust cinematic artistry captivated audiences—and is sure to captivate them today. Moreover, the film served as a powerful springboard for Natalie Portman, catapulting to later signature roles in sci-fi favorites like Star Wars and Annihilation.
Portman commanded attention, delivering a performance–at 12 years old–both powerful and nuanced, heralding the brilliant career to follow Leon: The Professional.
Starring Jean Reno as the titular Leon, joined by a strikingly young Portman in her film debut, the story concerns a professional contract killer who somewhat reluctantly shelters twelve-year-old Mathilda Lando (Portman, whose acting prowess defies her age) after her family is brutally murdered.
The murderer? None other than drug-addicted, gleefully corrupt, and utterly depraved Norman Stansfield, portrayed unforgettably by Gary Oldman.
Surprisingly heartfelt, Leon: The Professional charts the unorthodox relationship between Léon and Mathilda after her family’s murder, as the hitman trains her in his dark art. Revenge–served properly cold–indeed ensues.
The film bears a thematic resemblance to Besson’s earlier work, the 1990 action-thriller classic La Femme Nikita, in which Reno plays a comparable role. Ever the auteur, Besson also wrote the film’s screenplay. The movie’s production was a multi-national enterprise, involving exterior shoots primarily in New York City and interior shoots in Paris.
Due to the craftsmanship and excellence of Besson and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, the movie seems like a big-budget blockbuster. Whereas, in reality, it was produced on a relatively modest budget of $16 million. A spectacular mix of set design, combat choreography, and iconic soundtrack from composer Éric Serra lent the film all the ingredients of a hit.
Leon: The Professional initially premiered in France, Besson’s home country, before being distributed (and winning audiences) globally. While it did not conquer the box office, it nonetheless managed to enjoy enthusiastic praise from critics, earning a cult following if there ever was one. The movie currently holds a 74 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 65 reviews and an average rating of 6.9/10.
Lauded, too, was Oldman’s over-the-top, all-over-the-place, thrust-in-your-face delivery of the film’s antagonist, contrasting compellingly with Reno’s reserved, understated quietude.
Critics especially enjoyed the film’s originality, intricate character development, intense performances, cinematic style, boldness, and bravado. Portman commanded attention, delivering a performance–at 12 years old–both powerful and nuanced, heralding the brilliant career to follow Leon: The Professional.
Lauded, too, was Oldman’s over-the-top, all-over-the-place, thrust-in-your-face delivery of the film’s antagonist, contrasting compellingly with Reno’s reserved, understated quietude. The latter evolves into a father figure to the orphaned Mathilda, whose abusive, biological father was less than ideal before his violent demise.
Natalie Portman Becomes A Sci-Fi Star
And what makes the film all the more intriguing today is its role in vaulting Portman into a veritable stardom. This is especially true when it comes to classics of science fiction–namely, Star Wars and the recent dark SF favorite, Annihilation.
Only a few short years after her debut in Besson’s classic, Portman found herself “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” as Padmé Amidala in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. Unlike Jar Jar Binx, Portman’s Padmé won over legions of adoring fans, making her a household name.
And in the dark (while not as dark as Leon: The Professional), dystopian sci-fi favorite V for Vendetta, Portman struck again–this time as Evey Hammon, the upstart revolutionary joining V in their revolt against the fascist dictatorship.
She is not to be missed in Annihilation, either, where Portman plays a scientist joining a band of explorers who traverse a mysterious, terrifying zone called “The Shimmer,” a quarantined section of the Florida swamps featuring terrifying flora and fauna, mutated by an alien presence.
All these roles, and more, thanks to the big, friendly assassin, Leon.
Who will, undoubtedly, charm audiences on Netflix as much as he did in theaters in 1994. As will Portman, whose talent Leon: The Professional showcases in such an interesting, early light. And while “charm” might not exactly be the word, Oldman’s Stansfield is still guaranteed to have…an effect–albeit a terrifying one.
For those hankering for an action-packed, moody film sporting an emotional depth and demonstrating the beginnings of one of science fiction’s leading ladies, look no further than Besson’s one-of-a-kind assassin thriller. Stream Leon: The Professional.