Sunday, 4 January 2015

Wasted Potential From A Professional

Back in grade 11, when my high school started its first film class, my teacher had an assistant with whom I would banter a lot about movies (as well a the teacher himself, but that's another matter). Towards the end of the year, we were running low on time to watch movies and still fit in everything my teacher wanted to do.  Instead of watching movies in full, he and the assistant began screening clips from movies they recommended for us to see, and seeing as I had a huge supply of clips available on my computer at the time I made numerous offers to use them but was turned down every time. 

One of the first clips we were shown was a scene from the movie Léon: The Professional, specifically the scene in which Natalie Portman manages to survive the massacre of her family by total chance (she happened to be out buying groceries at the time and got home afterwards). I found myself interested in seeing the whole thing, but initially turned down an offer from the assistant to borrow his copy for the weekend. Three years later I finally got around to picking up a copy on Blu-ray and decided to give it a watch. For three years I had been meaning to watch that movie, and what I got was... okay at the most. It's one of those movies that starts out promising but builds up to a disappointing climax that ruins the whole thing. I'll get into more detail about that later.

Luc Besson's work really seems to be hit or miss. Some of his movies, like The Big Blue, are genuinely good. Others, like The Fifth Element are over-the-top and campy but still fun to watch. Then he has one or two movies that are just bad, the best example being Lucy; one of the only times I have walked out of a theater. (Why did you make an entire science fiction movie out of an idea that has been completely debunked by science?) Léon: The Professional might not be as bad as Lucy, for sure. However, it is hardly Besson's best work either. It has some good ideas but also a mountain of wasted potential.

The story concerns the relationship between an assassin named Léon, played by Jean Reno; and a young girl named Mathilda, played by a teenage Natalie Portman. Mathilda happens to be miserable, living in a dysfunctional family with an abusive father caught up in criminal activity. When corrupt police officer Stansfield played by Gary Oldman gets involved he ends up murdering Mathilda's entire family, including her brother. Mathilda herself survives by total luck simply due to not being present at the time, and takes refuge in Léon's apartment. After spending some time with Léon, she talks him into training her to be an assassin as well so she can get revenge. 

Sounds like a pretty good premise, right? I thought so, too. Unfortunately that doesn't really go the way it should. You have this great setup involving this girl being trained as an assassin... and it's never used. Mathilda gets all these skills and never gets a chance to actually take advantage of them. The most she ever gets to do is shoot a gun blindly through a window (before he begins training her) and use a sniper rifle to shoot a paintball at some random guy jogging. The whole point is supposed to be her quest for revenge... but nope. We can't let her take it on. Better to have Léon do everything while Mathilda just hides.

I mentioned earlier, the climax was what really ruined the movie and pulled me out of it. In this big scene, Stansfield brings a whole team of cops to take out Léon (all because Mathilda was stupid enough to tell him who she was and what she was doing). He explicitly states that there are over 200 of them, seemingly every cop in the city... and not one woman among them. Statistically that seems extremely improbable, and at first I thought it might have just been my feminist side kicking in again. However, thinking about it at length, there was a lot of wasted potential in doing so, and it does raise a few questions about Besson's views on gender, considering all the characters who actually do something are men.

We have an insanely huge army of over 200 male cops who are all taken out by Léon. Where is Mathilda this whole time? She's sneaking out of the building to make sure Léon's potted plant gets out safely. This would have been a great opportunity for her to show off her skills. Instead she is immediately grabbed within moments of leaving the apartment and has to get rescued by Léon who then starts going Rambo on the cops. The whole movie has been about her quest for revenge, but instead it's Léon who dies taking out Stansfield, which was a big disappointment, and Mathilda just runs away. 

Now that alone is annoying, but there is another angle to look at where Besson's treatment of women displays a waste of potential. Throughout the movie, Léon keeps saying that he has this one rule about who he kills: "No women, no children". Okay, sure, he has standards, but I have a question for you Léon, supposing a woman is posing an obvious threat to you? I mean, what are you going to do if Jane Smith comes kicking down your door and has an assault rifle pointed at your forehead? Supposing a bunch of armed cops break into your apartment and one of them happens to be a woman?

Besson apparently made this movie completely failing to consider the fact that female cops and female assassins do exist, which doesn't make sense considering the entire plot consists of him training a girl to be an assassin. His "no women, no children" rule is obviously intended to give him some depth by displaying a moral code, but it never really affects the plot in general.You could take out every single scene where he mentions that code and the story would still be pretty much exactly the same. This climactic scene could have been a great opportunity to test how far Léon would go in sticking to that rule. 

There could have been some dramatic potential in Léon being faced with a female cop holding a loaded gun, and him trying to cope with the possibility that he may have to break his one rule. That could even have been his downfall, with him being unable to bring himself to shoot a female cop and getting killed as a result. That would then have forced Mathilda to become more self-reliant and step up as an action heroine, allowing her to finally confront Stansfield and kill him. Instead, we just have a ridiculously large number of men and Léon beating them up before getting killed taking out the guy who should have been killed by Mathilda.

It's a shame, really, because Léon: The Professional could have been a great movie. There was a lot of good ideas and some great actors who try to do their best with their performances. In the end, however, there are too many opportunities missed. Luc Besson had this brilliant idea for an action movie and completely failed to take advantage of it. I know he can make a good movie, but all we have here was a very good premise that has sadly gone to waste.


  1. I'm a big fan of this movie, but you definitely make some valid points. As far as Leon's moral code goes, I always took it to mean he wouldn't take on jobs where women or children were the targets. But yeah, it's largely there just to give him some depth. Excellent article.

    1. That seems to make sense. I just felt like if they were going to give him that aspect it might be more effective to actually incorporate it into the plot.

  2. I have not seen this film in years. I saw it in the theatre when it first came out and I enjoyed it. I found the kid strong even though she annoyed me about the potted plant. I really liked Jean Reno's character. I felt he gave him depth. You make excellent points about no women but I like to think that the women could not be corrupted so that was why they were not there. She could not have a mother figure which was represented by jean Reno's character and herself as the mother to that stupid plant. She obviously was not protected by her own mom

    1. I'm not entirely sure how well that reasoning would hold up. You don't often see female corrupt cops depicted in the movies (the only exception I know of is The Dark Knight, and even then she was forced into it) but police corruption is a very real problem that probably affects people of both genders. I'm also not entirely sure that all those cops were corrupt, as it is possible that Stansfield had given them false information.

      I can agree that there wasn't really a way to fit in a mother character for Mathilda, but I still think it might have been nice to give her a chance to actually use the skills she's been developing this whole time.

  3. I actually love this movie. Here are some of my opinions on the movie:
    1) Leon's moral code - I agree that's it's probably there to give him more depth and it's also because of what happen to his girlfriend right. He's a hired assassin, I guess he'd probably rejected any jobs that involved women and children or survey the area before a hit to ensure none gets caught in the crossfire...we do see him in action and he is very meticulous.
    2) The cops that ambushed Leon, they were heavily geared up and masked, so there could be some female?
    3) I guess a lot of us want to see Mathilda take her revenge especially after Leon starts training her. But Leon only trains her reluctantly, he probably did it to buy him more time to persuade her not to do it (He taught her complicated rituals and he didn't glamorize his work) and to distract her from her suicidal tendencies. He didn't want Matilda to have the kind of life he has. I also think more and more the movie is more about Leon than Mathilda. He is after all in the title. Leon is such a solitary character, the only thing he feels safe to pour his affections on is his potted plant. We learn in the middle of the movie why he is such a recluse and then this young girl desperately knocks on his door and we see him really struggle to make that decision to let her in or not, which he does. In doing so finally took a chance on caring for another person and at the same time the possibility of losing that person as well. In the end Leon saves Matilda two ways; from dying and going down the path he did.