Viking Night: The Professional
By Bruce Hall
March 20, 2012
If I'm not mistaken, this is the third or fourth time I have profiled a film either directed or produced by Luc Besson. I'm okay with that, because almost everything the guy creates is an instant cult classic, if not entirely high art. He makes movies that shouldn't be good, but kind of are. He creates worlds that are stupid and improbable places filled with stupid and improbable people. But they're places you wouldn't mind living. And there's always one character that you wouldn't mind meeting. They transcend the production and become the face of the picture. They represent a feeling, an emotion or an ideal - they're almost a walking MacGuffin - and most of the time, it's what makes the movie work.
It's the reason why the film known in America as The Professional is elsewhere simply called: Leon.
And Leon (Jean Reno) gets himself a James Bond opening - if James Bond was an Italian with a French accent, lived on milk instead of martinis, and had an ironic fondness for high water pants, peace lilies and Gene Kelly films. He is a professional hit man in the employ of a shady restaurateur (Danny Aiello, being Danny Aiello) in Manhattan's Little Italy. Leon is a gifted killer, as methodical and efficient as a ninja. And he does it all without ever leaving his feet, breaking a sweat or making a sound. But it's okay, since he also happens to have a heart of gold. You know how it is in the movies. Hookers, lunatics, hit men - it's all good as long as you're a genuinely nice person inside.
And boy, is Leon a really nice guy. He lives the quiet life of a bachelor assassin, doting over his plant and drinking milk by the gallon. He works out regularly, cleans his guns and sleeps upright each night in a creaky chair with one eye open. Sound like a party? Just wait till you meet his neighbor. Down the hall lives a precocious little girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman, in her first role) who loves Madonna, Transformers, lollipops and Camel cigarettes.
She lives in a crappy two bedroom flat with her dirtbag drug dealing father (Michael Badalucco, guidette mother (Ellen Greene) and slutty sister (Elizabeth Regen). Dysfunctional isn't quite the word for them; they make the cast of Jersey Shore look like Rhodes Scholars. And yet somehow, Mathilda is the most comparatively well adjusted of the bunch. Still, she's little more than an unpleasant afterthought to her family, like a half healed scab or an ingrown toenail. The only one she's close to is her four year old brother.
Leon and Mathilda are informal acquaintances. They see each other in the hall from time to time when he returns home from shooting people in the face, and she is taking a break from getting socked in the same place by her dad. There's a particularly significant moment early in the film where Leon finds her in the hall, a bloody and dejected mess. She poignantly asks: "Is life always this hard, or just when you're a kid?" He calmly reassures her that things are always going to suck like this and of course, we're meant to sympathize with two people who seem not to have asked for the lives they live. It's the first important dramatic beat of the film, and it becomes clear that Mathilda has been observing her reclusive neighbor.