American critics have been unkind to the young French director Luc Besson (he’s still only 35, and he made his debut in 1983), who had a crossover hit four years ago with La Femme Nikita. A blockbuster overseas and an art-house hit here, it met with some snobbery (Terrence Rafferty’s entire review was this: “The end of French cinema as we know it”), and the American remake, Point of No Return, was similarly slammed. Have reviewers gotten so jaded, so reflexive in their disdain for any action movie, that they can’t distinguish stylish, smartly-paced action from the latest dud based on a video game? Besson has now directed his first American film, The Professional, and while it’s not great (Quentin Tarantino has forever spoiled us for movies about hit-men), it’s hardly as offensive as many critics are saying.
The Professional is high-concept in a way that made me cringe whenever I saw ads for it: Assassin Leon (Jean Reno) takes orphaned 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) under his wing after slimy DEA thugs (led by Gary Oldman) murder her family. Twenty-five words or less. And the plot motor has whiskers; we know that Leon will learn to love and Mathilda will learn self-reliance. But the movie is cool about its subject. Besson likes to see what happens to killers-for-hire when domesticity is imposed on them — Nikita endured charm school and almost became a housewife, and Leon is forced into a father-mentor role. Besson still hasn’t taken full wing with this theme, the way John Huston did in Prizzi’s Honor, but that was a comedy and Besson isn’t a comedian. He’s a brutal sensualist of the Walter Hill/John Woo school. Some of the sequences, such as an army of cops converging on Leon (in a faux-Scarface climax), are so hyperbolic they’re funny; they’re a relief from the artificial tension of the story, which rarely makes sense. An early image of sunlight slicing through bullet holes in a wall might be Besson’s way of one-upping Blood Simple; Besson makes smoother American junk movies than most Americans do these days.
Overall, the movie is better than I’d anticipated. Given the sticky premise, it shouldn’t work, but Besson believes in it — either that or he believes in the big action scenes made possible by the premise (which amounts to the same thing). There’s conviction in this movie, and intelligence. It’s square, but not in the overstuffed way that StarGate is square. After all, what is Leon (who’s simple at heart and illiterate) but a heavily armed Forrest Gump? Jean Reno consistently underplays Leon, and he has a great long face that fascinates the camera; he’s like a scrawny Stallone, whom he often resembles vocally as well — he has some of Stallone’s pre-’80s sweetness, before Sly’s spirit got as hard as his body. (Reno is most appealing when he’s entranced by an old Gene Kelly movie — he has the rapt expression of a boy watching his first Disney.) This soft-spoken but kinetic actor is a worthy vehicle for what appears to be Besson’s new chosen theme (the headaches of an assassin), but unlike Nikita, he has no anger; that’s reserved for Mathilda.
Probably thanks to Natalie Portman, whose film debut this is, Mathilda doesn’t come across as a baby Nikita. She has more cause to be vicious and enraged than the nihilistic Nikita did, but she just wants justice — though the Besson twist is that she wants revenge for the death of her little brother, not for the murders of her moronic father, stepmother, and stepsister. (The four-year-old boy’s fate is about the only death Besson spares us.) Besson doesn’t overdraw on her cuteness, though he is a little too stuck on Mathilda’s romantic yearnings and alienation. As written, Mathilda is usually unreadable and sometimes idiotic (she marches into the DEA offices with a variety of hidden guns — does she seriously believe she could assassinate the villain and get away clean?), but Portman somehow makes us understand Mathilda’s eagerness to enter the same violent life that killed her brother. She’s like the boy in Time Bandits: Life gets scarier and more exciting when an outlaw enters the picture.
The Professional keeps going on the power of its performances, but one actor threatens to bring everything crashing down. Is it my imagination, or has Gary Oldman started to gobble bad ‘shrooms before each take? He was pretty funny as the corrupt, wired sap in last year’s Romeo Is Bleeding, but that same oily intensity is used here to try to send shivers up our spines. Oldman is introduced with his back to the camera, a time-honored movie device to establish evil. And he’s evil, all right — so much so that I wondered how he never blows his cover. Oldman’s gelatinous performance throws the film out of whack; you can’t believe that this pill-popping ding-dong would inspire loyalty among his partners in crime. He’s a cartoon bad guy with a set of fancy traits; he listens to Beethoven before moving in for the kill — a nod to A Clockwork Orange, I guess.
Besson’s characters have names, but they don’t really need them. Besson treats them as action-film archetypes: The Hit-Man, The Girl, The Bad Cop. On the evidence of this movie and Nikita, Luc Besson seems to want to do for the action genre what Sergio Leone did for Westerns in the ’60s: inflate the clichés, present them with an air of parody, and yet honor the genre. Essentially, I’ve seen The Professional a few times before; its closest antecedent is John Cassavetes’ Gloria, from 1980, about a little boy who runs afoul of gangsters and is protected by a tough female detective. In that movie, there was some wit in the way Gena Rowlands rolled her eyes at the kid’s budding machismo. The Professional goes back to the films Gloria poked fun at.
Leon and Mathilda don’t even go through the obligatory period of hating each other, then grudgingly bonding. The attraction is immediate and mutual (though, I hasten to add, platonic), and before long he gives in to her demands that he train her as a hit-girl. I doubt there’s any calculation in this; like his contemporaries — Tarantino, Spike Lee, Tim Burton — Besson makes the movies he wants to see. Sergio Leone was well into his forties by the time he made his Dollars trilogy, and critics sniffed at those, too. Besson has years ahead of him, and in Jean Reno he may have found his Clint Eastwood. And if not Jean Reno, then Natalie Portman.