Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello. (1994, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 18, 1994
For his American debut, French director Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Big Blue) gives us what at first appears to be a film composed entirely of cinematic clichés, but then has the good sense to give them a friendly spin, thereby knocking our preconceptions off kilter and into a whole new realm. It's an American-lensed film, but it sure doesn't feel like it. Longtime Besson co-conspirator Reno is Leon, a quiet, self-absorbed mob hitman residing in New York's Little Italy. As the pet assassin of Capo Aiello, he carries out his hits with the ruthless efficiency of an automaton: no words, no mercy, just chilly silence interrupted only by the occasional muzzle flash or the evil click of a switchblade. A Sicilian émigré, the lanky, closely shorn Leon is an enigma, spending his days in his rundown apartment, tending to his one true friend, a potted plant, or catching a Gene Kelly flick in Times Square. When the family of the little girl next door (Portman) is brutally murdered by a team of corrupt DEA agents led by a pill-popping psychopath played -- over the top, natch -- by Oldman, Leon finds himself in the unlikely position of having to care for the girl and keep his operation running smoothly at the same time. Clichéd? Mais oui. Besson puts the spin on what might otherwise have been a wholly unremarkable film by having the girl decide to become an assassin, and having Leon act as her mentor. There's also a growing relationship between the two that borders on pedophilia, but Besson makes clear (and Reno is so well-cast in the part) that Leon, in many respects, is as much a child as his young charge, and occasionally more so. It's an engaging premise that, while occasionally stilted and odd, brings an energetic burst of freshness to the more predictable elements of The Professional. Besson's visuals are, as always, vibrant and decidedly European. He fills the frames with odd-angled shots and alarming riots of color that catch you off-balance. It's an altogether interesting take on an old story, one which Besson pulls off with his customary flair and panache.