The Professional

Leave it to french writer-director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita) to put a kinky twist on Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks. The professional is Leon (Jean Reno), an immigrant hitman in Manhattan who takes in 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) after Stansfield (Gary Oldman), a crooked drug cop, massacres her family. Leon isn't used to people his closest companion is a plant. He simply waits until bossman Tony (Danny Aiello, up to his usual tricks) calls him for a job. But Mathilda holds him in thrall. Like any good assassin father, Leon takes her to the rooftop with a gun to learn his trade.

Portman, with her Louise Brooks haircut and pouty lips, is a beauty. And Besson flirts disturbingly with her budding sexuality Mathilda dresses as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe to amuse Leon. It helps that Reno, a skilled actor of surprising sweetness, keeps Leon's feelings paternal and the film outside the realm of child porn. He even discourages her interest in revenge, preferring to take personal care of Stansfield.

Leon kills clean, though never women or children; he has standards. Stansfield has none. Oldman hams this scumbag to the hilt, like an eye-rolling, tongue-flicking Dracula having a hissy fit. The climax is a crock slaughter mixed with shameless sentiment. Still, Reno and Portman build an appealing and affecting rapport, and the bang-bang Besson style is always a kick. Flying high on explosive action and sly wit, The Professional gets the job done.

From The Archives Issue 694: November 3, 1994