[Contains silent and deadly SPOILERS!!!]
This year, in place of a chocolate egg, the Easter Bunny left me the “Director’s Cut” of Léon (aka The Professional) (1994). For those who don’t know (shame on you!), this darkly comic thriller stars Jean Reno as the eponymous hitman, whose lonely, regimented life is thrown into upheaval when he saves a 12-year-old girl from the corrupt, psychotic DEA agent who slaughtered her entire family, after her father foolishly stole some drugs from him. Hilarity, adolescent crushes and plenty bloodshed ensue.
Despite the fact it’s set in New York (with all of the exteriors, and some of the interiors, filmed on location in that city), and the fact that the majority of the characters are American, I‘ve always thought of Léon as a French film. Obviously the main character is a Frenchy, as is writer/director Luc Besson… but more than that, it just feels French, in a way I can’t really define or explain. Maybe it has something to do with the whole “Lolita” angle?* This is the first time I’ve seen the extended version, which includes a number of scenes removed from the original cut when American test audiences started getting antsy over the way ‘Mathilda’ (Natalie Portman) propositions Léon to be her first lover. Is it weird that we’re happier to see a grown man teaching a little girl how to kill other people in cold blood, than we would be to see him teach her how to kiss? In the end he rejects her advances anyway, and they settle on being platonic bed-buddies… and I don’t really think this harms the film at all, since the guy dies long before anything untoward can happen between the two of them. I also think that the added scenes of Léon teaching Mathilda how to “clean” are a big improvement, because they make her decision to trail ‘Agent Stansfield’ (Gary Oldman) back to his office seem far less suicidal. I mean, it was always going to be a stupid plan, but at least she’d had a little more experience of up-close killing by that point.
Overall, I think this film has aged a lot better than I have, and really holds up as a classic… it’s dramatic and tense and disturbing, but also rather sweet and funny and human. Apparently Besson originally started working on it to kill some time while he was waiting for The Fifth Element to come together, and it only took him 30 days to write the script! Oh, envy…
The DVD also comes with a fascinating half hour retrospective, featuring anecdotes from several cast and crew members (though not from Besson himself). Until today I didn’t even realise that Ellen Greene was in this film, playing Mathilda’s short-lived mother… and it’s great to hear some of the details surrounding her big death scene, and her thoughts on the project in general. Meanwhile, Portman gets a 13-minute featurette all to herself, and it’s heartening to hear that she still has such fond memories of this production, and its promotion. It was her professional debut, of course, and she acknowledges that being a child actor in an adult movie probably helped to make her transition into adult roles far smoother than it often is for other child actors. She also insists that she would be more than happy to reprise the role in a sequel… though sadly, because of petty “studio politics“, that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Still, she can always take pride in the incredible performance she gave here… even managing to hold her own against Oldman, who very nearly steals the film with his gloriously operatic villainy.
* Technically Lolita was written by a Russian fella living in America, but it was first published in France, so there!