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The Professional
Genre Thriller
Year: 1994
The Professional, also known as Leon or The Cleaner, is possibly Luc Besson’s greatest film to date. Jean Reno is Leon, an Italian immigrant-turn-hit man that befriends an orphaned girl called Mathilda (Natalie Portman). Mathilda’s family are gunned down after a revenge killing at their New York apartment, and she manages to escape to Leon’s hideout at the end of the passage. He lets her into his life, and cannot bring himself to get rid of her. Mathilda starts to give Leon a reason to live, beyond his job. Now protecting Mathilda means risking his life, but for once - he’s willing to do it as a sacrifice rather than for the money.

It’s a moving encounter on the other side of the law. Leon draws sympathy because he’s stuck in a rut. He’s a “cleaner” for Tony (Danny Aiello), an Italian mobster who took Leon in and keeps his hit payment in his “bank”. Tony’s put under pressure by Stansfield (Gary Oldman), who wants to get revenge on Leon for all the unauthorised hits on his men. Leon’s instinct is to protect Mathilda, who’s grown fond of the likeable Leon.

The Professional draws on rich symbolism throughout the film. Each shot is carefully planned, and Besson’s use of close ups give us time to befriend the hit man and his adopted daughter. The cinematography is fresh and crisp, and the soundtrack provides a beautiful backtrack to the urban terror. Leon, Mathilda, Tony and Stansfield are real characters, and the script reinforces their underrated performances. The story is touching, and goes beyond the violence of the killings. In some ways, I see how Tsotsi may have been inspired by such a piece. The characterization and story are absorbing, and watching Leon’s character soften with Mathilda’s unconditional friendship is worth every minute. The defenceless New York public are bystanders in what becomes one man’s cowardice in numbers against another man’s borrowed instincts.

Natalie Portman is fantastic as the young 12-year-old Mathilda, and despite a rough upbringing, her innocence is refreshing. That’s not to say she’s an angel! Reno gives Leon a hard shell with a soft centre. The man is searching for meaning, and has lost touch with reality. Each kill seems to numb him, until he sees how desperate Mathilda is to hold onto her life. Mathilda finally has a role model she admires, and wants to learn the trade in exchange for literacy and household maintenance. Leon reluctantly agrees, and soon realises Mathilda wants to hire him for her own private vendetta.

It’s a riveting watch, and time flies by when you get snared by The Professional. It does get violent, but the graphic violence isn’t over-the-top. Besson uses tension in the placement of shots, and the editing works well to create suspense. I’d recommend it to anyone that can manage a bit of film violence.

The bottom line: Captivating.

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