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Leon (Luc Besson) 1994
Originally released in the US with a nearly a half hour of footage missing, and the title The Professional, Luc Besson's Leon is one of the stronger action movies of the 90's. I did see the original cut of the film a few years ago, but upon watching the director's cut, I am at a loss to see how they could remove so much of the film and still retain the film's message. (I realize, of course, they probably didn't retain much at all beyond the shootouts). As it stands now, Besson's film is still serviceable, but feels improved over what I remember initially seeing.
The film's plot is more an excuse for stylish gunfights to take place amongst all the character development, but here goes: Leon (Jean Reno) is a supernaturally accomplished hitman that takes in a 12-year old girl, Mathilda, (Natalie Portman) whose family has been murdered by a corrupt cop (Gary Oldman). Mathilda, in an only-in-the-movies twist of fate, is nonplussed by Leon's occupation, and begins to learn his trade as she plots her revenge. The bulk of the film deals with the relationship between the two, and many of its best moments are when it flirts with the obvious question of whether or not Leon and Mathilda will ever get it on (thankfully, I think, they don't). So, basically, the scenes between the big action scenes are a (fun) tease. Nonetheless, Besson manages to create an appropriately solemn tone that extends throughout the film.
When the film caves in, and allows itself to be the nonsensical action film it seems to want to be, it crackles with excitement. The big set pieces don't make much logical sense (Leon can apparently teleport), but it hardly matters. Besson is exceptionally good at directing an action scene, and he seems to hold nothing back here. The film's exceptionally well edited, and there's little to complain about in any technical department. The performances are all over the board, however. Jean Reno and Natalie Portman have an exceptional amount of chemistry (sometimes paternal, sometimes sexual), while Danny Aiello and Gary Oldman chew scenery for the most part. Portman's performance is never cloying, nor does it ever feel phony. Her Mathilda is clearly wounded, but too tough to admit it, too sure that if she shows weakness she'll die. It's surprising to find an action movie with so much emotional baggage, but the amazing thing is that it works.
* * * 1/2