In the realm of action-thrillers, few films manage to strike a balance between heart-pounding intensity and emotional depth as effectively as Leon: The Professional. Directed and written by Luc Besson, this 1994 masterpiece weaves a tale of redemption, unexpected connections, and a world where hitmen are humanized, and relationships are redefined. With a standout cast, including Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and a remarkable debut by the now world-famous Natalie Portman, Leon: The Professional has quickly become a cinematic classic—one you can now stream on Netflix.
Set against the gritty backdrop of Little Italy in New York City, Leon: The Professional follows the enigmatic Leon (Jean Reno), a highly skilled hitman whose isolated and orderly life is disrupted when he crosses paths with Mathilda (Natalie Portman). After Mathilda’s family falls victim to the brutality of corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), she seeks refuge with Léon, and the duo’s bond begins to unfold as she becomes his protégé.
With a standout cast, including Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and a remarkable debut by the now world-famous Natalie Portman, Leon: The Professional has quickly become a cinematic classic—one you can now stream on Netflix
The idea for Leon: The Professional had been something that Besson had been working on for several years, and the director even created an earlier film in 1990 with a very similar character in La Femme Nikita. Jean Reno worked with Besson in La Femme Nikita as well, playing a man named Victor. Expanding on the idea from their earlier work together, Besson said that in Leon: The Professional, perhaps Reno was playing Victor’s American cousin, a man with a similar profession but who was also a bit more human.
At the core of Leon: The Professional lies an unconventional relationship between Léon and Mathilda. Reno’s portrayal of Léon masterfully balances vulnerability and lethality, providing depth to a character whose actions are dictated by both his skill and his emotional journey.
However, Leon: The Professional’s emotional weight rests heavily on the shoulders of a young Natalie Portman, making her acting debut as Mathilda. Though Portman had never acted in a film before, her performance is nothing short of extraordinary as she navigates Mathilda’s trauma, resilience, and unexpected attachment to Léon. Their dynamic, which oscillates between mentorship and camaraderie, adds layers of complexity to the narrative.
Natalie Portman was 13 when she made her debut as Mathilda in Leon: The Professional.
It’s no wonder that Portman went on to develop an incredible acting career. After her mind-blowing performance in Leon: The Professional, she went on to act in seven more Hollywood features before her 18th birthday, with some of her more notable roles including Queen Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace and Lauren Gustafson in Heat.
Leon: The Professional was partially filmed in New York City, with its gritty streets and towering buildings becoming an integral part of the narrative. While most of the interiors were shot in France, the cityscape of New York served as a contrasting backdrop, intensifying the characters’ interactions and emphasizing the divergence between their worlds.
Besson’s directorial prowess shines in his ability to seamlessly meld action sequences with moments of heartfelt connection. One of Leon: The Professional’s most memorable scenes is Mathilda’s training montage, where she learns the art of assassination from Léon. The juxtaposition of her innocence with the deadly tasks she’s mastering highlights the film’s central theme of duality and blurred morality.
Upon its release, Leon: The Professional garnered positive reviews from critics and audiences alike. The film’s blend of style, wit, and emotional resonance was particularly highlighted. The performances of the main cast members received acclaim, with Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the unhinged Stansfield standing out as a testament to his acting prowess.
Over the years, Leon: The Professional has become a classic, but a planned sequel was scrapped and repurposed as Zoe Saldana’s Colombiana.
Leon: The Professional‘s legacy endures through its influence on subsequent cinema. Characters like Norman Stansfield have found their place among the pantheon of cinematic villains, while the film’s themes of unlikely connections and moral ambiguity continue to resonate with audiences. The movie’s impact is also evident in pop culture references, such as the song “Matilda” by Alt-J, which pays homage to the film’s climactic moments.
Leon: The Professional is a masterclass in storytelling, seamlessly blending action, emotion, and character development. Luc Besson’s direction, combined with the standout performances of Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and a young Natalie Portman, creates an unforgettable cinematic experience. The film’s enduring legacy lies in its ability to defy genre conventions, exploring the depths of humanity within the confines of a high-stakes action thriller.