How Luc Besson’s ‘Leon: The Professional’ Created a New Type of Action Movie

Twenty years later, the competent killer is our default hero and Natalie Portman has come of age.

It’s fitting that the man most responsible for the creation of “Leon: The Professional” was Bruce Willis. It was Willis’s packed schedule that delayed shooting on “The Fifth Element” and prompted director Luc Besson to take on a quick side project, shooting a revenge flick starring his friend Jean Reno and Gary Oldman, the big bad from his sci-fi epic. And “Leon” seems very much like a rebuke of Willis and Willis-y movies. John McClane, all courage, impulsiveness and tank tops, would last about five minute’s in Besson’s New York, where discipline is the only virtue that matters and police officers are gunned down en masse.

What Leon has that Bruce Willis heroes always lack (with the notable exception of The Jackal), is a very particular set of skills. Besson was more than a decade away from writing “Taken,” but Jean Reno, who spends his screen time ignoring his bloody handiwork, embracing a sort of lived–in loneliness, and protecting a young woman from the horrors of the world by being increasingly horrible himself, is in full Liam Neeson mode. Besson has an almost fetishistic interest in his characters’ competence and it’s his admiration for Leon’s ability to execute a plan that makes his film so seminal. Prior to the film’s release, cold–bloodedness was a trait more or less reserved for villains. Besson flipped the script and drew a blueprint for Daniel Craig’s Bond, Matt Damon’s Bourne, and Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog on the back.

One of the recurring jokes of the movie is that Leon, with his round glasses, high-water pants, and oversized shoes, looks and moves more like Harold Lloyd than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s a simple man – his best friend is a plant – in an incredibly gritty landscape and Reno leans into the cartoonishness (really paving the way for his performances in those reprehensible “Pink Panther” remakes). Between the action scenes, the movie is essentially a Sartre one-act about the romance between a man-child and, well, a 12-year-old. It’s the French-est thing imaginable and though Americans wince at the way the camera lingers on pre-pubescent Natalie Portman, Besson’s disjointed vision seems completely cohesive. When – at the end of the film, Mathilda explains what has happened to a prep school teacher, the educator gawks, but buys the story. It’s the only reasonable reaction. 

And Portman’s performance is worth another look. She does sexually precocious well, but she’s at her best when she’s trying to kill people. She’s angry and sad and empty and, watching her, it’s hard not to think of Chloe Grace-Moretz as Hit Girl in “Kick Ass” or, stay with us, any female character in a Diablo Cody movie ever. She gives zero shits and that makes her frightening in precisely the way Leon isn’t. She is an apprentice, sure, but she’s far more bloodthirsty than her teacher. Mathilda was an instant archetype, a character that was recognizable despite being totally new and perfect for Portman. Watch “Black Swan” and, in many ways, you’re seeing a sequel to “Leon.” It’s the same girl and she’s still scary.

The only element of “Leon” that seems at all rote or cliche is Gary Oldman’s villainous detective. Besson didn’t have to reach for that one, but he had no real incentive to try anything new. Oldman is so astonishingly convincing as a crazy asshole that he could have just recited Hans Gruber lines (instead of ad-libbing about Beethoven) and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. “Leon” is, after all, an action flick; a weird, French, satirical, sexually-confusing, groundbreaking action flick, but an action flick nonetheless.

Photos by Columbia / Everett Collection