Before Luc Besson got into making movies, he was influenced mightily by Star Wars. In fact, Star Wars is the film that established the core of how he wanted to make films and the way he’d tell stories. He told Deadline Hollywood in 2015, “I will never, never forget when, at 16 years old, I sat in a film called Star Wars, and then suddenly, there’s a sound, and everybody did this [he turns around and looks behind], because for the first time, the sound was coming from the back. Everybody turned, and we look at the spaceship from the roof coming on screen, and everybody was like, wow. That’s why I’m working so hard. I want to offer people a wow moment that they will remember.”
For those who don’t know him, Luc Besson is a French film director and screenwriter who might be best known for directing films like The Fifth Element and writing films like Taken, both of which have ties and connections to Star Wars in various ways, from the hero’s journey to the inclusion of Liam Neeson. Today, though, we’re going to be talking about the film that put him on the radar of film fans everywhere and offered more of those “wow” moments than any film has a right to.
Leon: The Professional came out in 1994 and offered one of the best action thrillers ever to grace the silver screen, but more importantly to Star Wars fans, acted as the feature film debut of Natalie Portman. Portman plays Mathilde, a 12-year-old girl who has seen so much violence in her short life that it’s almost hard to believe. When her family is killed by renegade DEA agents, led by the deliciously crazy Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman, she vows revenge by learning how to be a professional killer. Where does she learn this? From Leon, an Italian hitman played by Jean Reno.
Mathilde, as played by Portman, is an energetic spirit, wise beyond her years, and hellbent on personally delivering the justice to the crooked cops who killed her family. In a way, it’s very much a grittier and more violent version of Amidala’s story in The Phantom Menace. Instead of looking to a killer for help, Amidala goes to the Jedi, the keepers of the peace. But in both cases, she’s more than willing to take matters into her own hands. Neither Mathilde nor Padmé is afraid to pick up a blaster (or gun) to do what needs to be done.
One of the things Luc Besson is the best at in The Professional, and is aided by the powerhouse performance by Natalie Portman, is how he’s able to photograph a conversation in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s a difficult thing to make conversations look dramatic and Portman is able to fill the frame with the force of her personality alone. This might have been one of the contributing factors that caused her to get the part in The Phantom Menace. Even at such a young age, Natalie Portman is able to compete with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor for consistently having the best lines in Episode I. She is able to channel an ability beyond her years that sells the desperation of the queen, the affections of the handmaiden, and personality of a young girl.
Leon: The Professional is an incredible film that offered the world its first look at Natalie Portman, an actress who would go on to win an Academy Award and give life to one of the most important figures in the history of Star Wars. Under Besson’s deft direction, the film alternates between cool thriller, exciting action film, and tense dramatic picture. It blends all of these together into a crescendo of action and emotion in a way that makes it one of my favorite films. For fans looking to the roots of Star Wars, Portman’s contributions to the film make it a must-see. It was rated R by the MPAA for “scenes of strong graphic violence and for language.” I wouldn’t recommend watching it with the kids. It’s definitely a film that requires a mature teenager or older.
Availability: Leon: The Professional is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s also available for a modest rental fee on most streaming video services.
Note: There are two versions of the movie. The Professional is the original US theatrical release of the film. Leon: The Professional is the longer, original European cut of the film, and I would argue that it is the superior version. Both are excellent, though, so you’re in for a good time either way.